If you have never been charged with a crime before, your first arrest and the criminal justice process that follows can be confusing. Before your case reaches it's conclusion, you will likely have several court dates at which you must appear before a judge, even if your case never goes to trial.
One of those court dates is the preliminary hearing. You may be wondering, "What is a preliminary hearing? How is a preliminary hearing different from a trial?"
After you are arrested and charged with a crime, you will be formally read the charges against you at an arraignment. At this point, you have the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. In most situations, a person would be advised to plead not guilty at this time in order to continue through the legal process and bring the case to a favorable outcome, whether that ultimately ends in dismissal, acquittal, or even a conviction with a minimal sentencing agreement.
If you plead not guilty to the charges, the next step is the preliminary hearing conference (PHC), where the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney meet to discuss the case. At the PHC, the State's attorney can make a "recommendation" or offer a plea agreement. If the conditions of the plea bargain are favorable to the defense, then you may plead guilty to the charges. However, if you and your attorney do not like the prosecutor's offer, you may continue to maintain your "not guilty" plea and your case will proceed to the ppreliminary hearing.
The preliminary hearing can seem like a trial of sorts. This is an official court proceeding in which the prosecution must demonstrate to the judge that the State has probable cause to prosecute you as a defendant. In other words, the district attorney must show that there is sufficient reason to believe that the defendant committed the crime. The prosecution does not have to present its full case, but it will likely involve witness testimony and other pieces of evidence that may be used against you at trial. After the judge considers the case, he or she will determine whether the State has sufficient probable cause. If so, the court will order trial; if not, the court will dismiss the charges. The burden of proof in a preliminary hearing is very low--the prosecution must show that there is evidence to believe you committed the crime, not prove that you actually committed a crime. Because of this, the judge typically rules in favor of trial at this point.
After trial has been ordered, the negotiations between the prosecution and defense sometimes continue. A defendant can change his or her plea to "guilty" if a favorable offer is received and avoid trial, or he or she can continue to fight to prove his or her innocence before a jury.
Contact your defense lawyer at any point during the process if you do not understand what your court dates mean and what is expected of you at each.
Image credit: Clyde Robinson