Preliminary Hearings in California Criminal Cases
A preliminary hearing, called a “prelim,” is a legal procedure in California criminal courts that only applies to felony charges. On the other hand, misdemeanor charges are resolved through a negotiated plea deal or guilty plea, or they can be heard in a jury trial.
The legal step of a preliminary hearing in a felony case is crucial because it serves multiple purposes for the defendant and prosecution, frequently leading to a resolution. Once the prosecutor formally files a felony complaint, California law mandates a preliminary probable cause hearing.
The primary purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine if there is sufficient evidence to justify holding the defendant to answer for the alleged crime, which includes any misdemeanor charges that were filed along with the felony.
Is there sufficient probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the crime? At this point, your criminal attorney will try to persuade the judge that there is no probable cause to support the case.
In this article by our California criminal defense lawyers, we will examine some crucial aspects of a preliminary hearing in a state court felony prosecution to help you better understand how it works.
What is a Probable Cause Hearing?
A preliminary hearing in felony cases is a probable cause hearing. It's similar to a jury trial as there is live testimony, legal arguments, and objections. The main difference is that the judge makes the final ruling rather than a jury.
Readers should note that while the burden of proof is still on the government, the standard is much lower. During the hearing, the judge must decide on two crucial questions:
- Is there enough probable cause to believe a crime was committed?
- If so, is there enough to believe that the defendant committed the crime?
As you can see, this makes it different from a trial where a prosecutor must prove that the defendant committed the crime, which is the highest standard under the law.
During a preliminary hearing, a prosecutor must show enough probable cause for the defendant's crime, which is not proof. Still, in all preliminary hearings, the reality is that in most cases, it's nothing more than a kangaroo court, as the judge will hold the defendant to answer and bind the case to a trial court.
Thus, dismissing a criminal case for insufficient evidence at the preliminary hearing is rare. Still, it does provide the defense team a chance to cross-examine the prosecutor's case.
This means the defendant's criminal lawyer can preview how witnesses will likely testify if the case proceeds to a trial. Still, it's just as crucial to the prosecution, which might have misinterpreted the strength of their case related to physical evidence.
Until witnesses take the stand and are put through cross-examination, it isn't easy to assess how compelling their testimony will be in deciding the case.
How Can You Resolve a Criminal Case by a Negotiated Plea?
Since a preliminary hearing allows the District Attorney and the defense lawyer to see how the case might play out in front of a jury, it plays another role in potentially resolving a felony case through a negotiated plea.
Perhaps both sides inaccurately assessed the strength of the case. Maybe the defense attorney mistakenly believed there was insufficient evidence to convict. Perhaps the prosecution thought the case was solid.
Thus, the preliminary hearing could force negotiations to settle the case where they were deadlocked before because the prosecutor was not willing to make a fair offer of a reduced crime or lighter sentence.
This means a preliminary hearing can allow both sides to reevaluate their positions and reach a favorable resolution through a negotiated plea bargain deal, which recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence against the defendant. In reality, most felony cases in California will be resolved shortly after the preliminary hearing.
Contact a Criminal Defense Professional for Help
In rare cases, defendants will waive the right to a preliminary hearing and proceed directly to the trial court for their felony case.
Criminal defense lawyers will typically almost always advise waiving their rights because it gives them a free chance to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution. In the end, however, the decision is made by the defendant. Our law firm partners are former Los Angeles County prosecutors, and we know what to expect at preliminary hearings.
If you or a family member were charged with a felony in a California state court, contact us to examine the case details and legal options moving forward.
Filing a California Penal Code 1538.5 motion to suppress evidence or a Pitchess motion would be appropriate.
The preliminary hearing is essential in felony cases because it's often the first step in reaching a favorable outcome. The Los Angeles-based criminal defense law firm of Eisner Gorin LLP can be reached for an initial case evaluation by phone or using the contact form.