A probable cause hearing, also known as a preliminary hearing, is a procedure in California courts for felony criminal prosecutions. Typically, it is a quick proceeding after charges were filed to determine that there was a valid reason for arrest and that the defendant more than likely committed the alleged crime. If the court rules that there was probable cause, the case can then proceed to trial, and law enforcement can continue to confine the defendant who has not bailed out of jail.
If you or a family member are a defendant in a preliminary hearing in a California state court felony prosecution, there are important aspects you should understand. A criminal defense lawyer will be able to guide you through the probable cause process and argue to the judge that there is not enough probable cause to support the charges.
What Is the Purpose of a Probable Cause Hearing?
There are several purposes for a probable cause hearing in the California court system for all parties involved.
The primary purpose is to determine if there is sufficient evidence that justifies law enforcement detaining the defendant while answering for the alleged felony criminal charge filed, including any misdemeanors. If there is, it is then determined if there is enough probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crime.
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How Is a Probable Cause Hearing Similar to Other Trials?
A probable cause (or preliminary) hearing has many similar elements of a jury trial, such as:
- There is live testimony.
- There is legal argumentation by both parties’ legal representation.
- There are evidentiary objections by the attorneys and rulings by the court.
The biggest difference in a probable cause hearing is that the judge is the trier of fact, not a jury.
How Is a Probable Cause Hearing Different from Other Trials?
A probable cause hearing is one of the most critical processes in a felony case because it allows the defendant several opportunities to work toward a successful ruling in their case.
One of the major differences in a preliminary hearing is that the standard of a judge proving probable cause is much lower. A jury trial, on the other hand, requires the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or the highest standard in the law.
This is why hiring effective litigation for a preliminary hearing is one of the most essential factors in defense counsel in California state felony cases. If the judge rules that there is sufficient evidence, the defendant will need to answer for their charges, and the prelim case will be transferred to a trial within 15 days.
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Is Cross-Examination Involved in the Probable Cause Hearing Process?
Yes, a probable cause hearing offers the defense team an opportunity to cross-examine the government’s case. Because it is rare to have a criminal case dismissed for insufficient evidence at a prelim, this gives criminal defense lawyers an opportunity to get a preview of how the government’s witnesses will perform on the stand if the case goes to trial.
For the prosecution, the prelim hearing also gives them a preview of how the defense case is shaping up. They may have overestimated the strength of their case, which was based solely on the documentary and physical evidence, not witness testimony.
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What Is a Negotiated Plea in the Probable Cause Hearing Process?
Probable cause hearings also serve as a way to indirectly resolve California criminal defense cases by a negotiated plea. This is because it is often discovered at these hearings that one or both parties have not accurately estimated the strength of their evidence in the case.
A negotiated plea bargain is when the defendant agrees to plead guilty to one or more of the criminal charges against them in exchange for the prosecutor to:
- Dismiss the remaining charges
- Reduce the charges
- Recommend that the court give the defense a lighter sentence
A plea bargain also includes a defendant pleading “nolo contendere,” or “no contest,” which means they are not admitting to or denying the charge, but they accept the punishment because the evidence in the case is sufficient enough to convict them on the charge.
Can You Waive Your Right to a Probable Cause Hearing?
It is rare, but a defendant can choose to waive the right to a preliminary hearing and instead continue on directly into trial court to fight felony charges. But, because of the beneficial opportunity for the defense to cross-examine the government’s case in the prelim hearing, this is almost always inadvisable.
The defendant should consult with their criminal defense attorney before making this risky decision. Defense counsel could instead file motions on your behalf as part of California Penal Code 1538.5 to suppress evidence, the Fourth Amendment protection of unreasonable searches by detectives, and the expectation of privacy.
How Is the Fourth Amendment Involved in the Probable Cause Hearing Process?
The Fourth Amendment is intended to prevent law enforcement officers from violating suspects’ rights. In the case of a probable case hearing, the Fourth Amendment requires California courts to justify that an arrest is supported by probable cause either before or right after officers take a suspect into custody.
While a judge who signs an arrest warrant usually serves this purpose, most arrests do not involve warrants, and officers must skip ahead to get quick deductions to hold a suspect in jail. Defendants have the right to have a reasonable expectation of privacy when there are searches of:
- Your car
- Your locker
- Your cell phone
- Your home
- Your purse or personal bag
What Could Violate the Fourth Amendment in a Prelim?
A probable cause determination by law enforcement within 48 hours of an arrest will abide by the Fourth Amendment. An unreasonable delay by authorities could violate the Fourth Amendment.
Should Defendants Have an Attorney During a Probable Cause Hearing?
If you, or someone you know, has been charged with a felony offense in California state court and is awaiting a probable cause hearing, consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer is crucial.