Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog

What is a preliminary hearing?

Posted on: July 23, 2007 at 8:29 a.m.

In California criminal courts, preliminary hearings are formal court hearings where the judge determines if there is probable cause to hold the defendant to answer for trial, on charges filed in the Felony Complaint. The hearing is only available if felony charges are filed (and not in misdemeanor prosecutions). It is a "mini-trial," where prosecutors present witness testimony establishing a crime was committed, and how the defendant is responsible.

A criminal defense lawyer may use the hearing as a vehicle to:

(1) determine how strong the case is against his client - are the witnesses credible? were there problems in the investigation? should he advise the client to settle the case in the trial court?

(2) test out the defense theory of the case through extensive cross-examination, and by possibly putting on affirmative defense witnesses to establish the defendant is not guilty.

The only drawback to presenting defense witnesses at such an early stage of criminal proceedings is that, if the case is not dismissed, prosecutors have a chance to preview the defense and fix their proof problems before trial through additional preparation and investigation.

In sum, the preliminary hearing may lead to charges being dismissed, or may inform experienced defense counsel that plea-bargaining is the best strategy in the trial court. Finally, if the judge finds there is probable cause for the charges in the Complaint, the case is sent to a trial court for arraignment on charges the prosecutor files in an Information, which is the trial court's formal document listing criminal charges.

Tagged as: california criminal laws, federal law and defense

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