When you are charged with a misdemeanor or felony in Pennsylvania, you are entitled to a preliminary hearing. (For purposes of ethics, please only consider these comments in regards to charges filed in Philadelphia, Delaware County, Chester County, Montgomery County or Bucks County, because that’s where we practice.)
All hearings in Philadelphia are held in the Criminal Justice Center at 13th & Filbert, across from City Hall. In the four surrounding counties, preliminary hearings are held in the District Courts, which are the local courts set up in the various municipalities throughout the counties. There are between 20 and thirty District Courts in each of the four counties surrounding Philadelphia, and our Criminal Defense Team has the privilege of practicing before all of them on a consistent basis.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether the police have what is called a Prima Facie case. In layman’s terms, it means they have to put on a hearing and submit evidence to the judge to show that there is some evidence that a crime was committed, and some evidence that the person charged with the crime had something to do with it.
The Preliminary Hearing is not a trial. You are not being found guilty or innocent. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine which, if any, charges should be ‘held over’ to the Court of Common Pleas, which is the trial court. At the trial court, you can either have your defense attorney negotiate a deal on your behalf, or you can have him or her litigate your case. Just to be clear, you have to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be convicted of a crime, but the standard to have the case held over from the Preliminary Hearing is much less.
One might then wonder if it’s important to have an experienced defense attorney at your Preliminary Hearing. The answer is an unconditional YES. Our attorneys are almost always able to make headway in a case at the preliminary hearing that can make an enormous difference later on. It’s our first opportunity to begin negotiations on your behalf, to have some of the charges dropped, and to have bail reduced. If you’re facing charges in the Philadelphia area or know someone who is, it’s imperative that you contact us as quickly as possible.