Review of What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing
A preliminary hearing, often referred to as a “prelim,” for short, is a procedure in California courts which applies only to felony criminal prosecutions.
Misdemeanor cases, by contrast, either resolve by a negotiated plea, an “open” guilty plea to the judge, or proceed to jury trial.
The intermediate step of a preliminary hearing in a felony case is an important milestone.
It serves several purposes for both parties and often leads to the resolution of the case.
After the prosecutor formally files a felony complaint with the court, California law requires the judge to hold a preliminary hearing.
This step in the criminal court process is often called a 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 criminal charge, including any misdemeanors that are charged along with a felony offense;
- If so, is there sufficient probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crime?
This is where your criminal defense lawyer will attempt to convince the judge there is not enough probable cause to support the charges.
This article discusses the important aspects of a preliminary hearing in a California state court felony prosecution which defendants and their family members should understand.
For more information, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers are providing a detailed review below.
Probable Cause Hearing
A preliminary hearing is essentially a probable cause hearing. It has many of the features of a jury trial such as:
- live testimony,
- evidentiary objections by the attorneys and rulings by the court,
- legal argumentation by the parties, etc.
The most obvious difference with a preliminary hearing is that the judge is the trier of fact rather than a jury.
From the advocate's perspective, the other major difference is that while the burden of proof is still on the government, the standard of proof is much lower.
Two major questions to answer
As stated above, during the hearing, the judge has to decide on two major questions:
- Is there enough probable cause to believe a crime was committed?
- If there is enough to believe that the defendant committed the crime?
This is different than a jury trial where the government is required to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard in the law.
At a preliminary hearing, their burden is only to show probable cause that the defendant committed the charged offense.
Probable cause is not proof at all, but it does require a much less substantial showing than that required at trial.
If there are two equally plausible interpretations at a preliminary hearing, one of which implicates the defendant and one of which exonerates them, the chances are very good that the judge will hold the defendant to answer and bind the case over to a trial court.
Put simply, in the vast majority of preliminary hearings in California, the judge will rule sufficient evidence exist and the defendant will be "held to answer for their charges," and the case will be transferred to a trail court within 15 days.
Lawyer's Opportunity for Cross-Examination
It should be noted that it's rare to have a criminal case dismissed outright for insufficient evidence at the preliminary hearing, but a prelim offers the defense team an opportunity to cross-examine the government's case.
In other words, the criminal defense lawyer can get a preview as to how important government witnesses are likely to perform on the stand should the case go to trial.
This preview is equally important for the prosecution, which may have overestimated the strength of their case based only on the documentary and physical evidence.
Until witnesses actually take the stand and are subject to cross-examination, it is often difficult to accurately assess how effective their testimony will be.
Resolving California Criminal Cases by a Negotiated Plea
By giving both the prosecution and defense an opportunity to see how the case would likely play out in front of a jury, preliminary hearings serve an additional function of indirectly resolving cases by negotiated plea.
It is frequently the case that one or both parties has inaccurately assessed the strength of the case from their perspective.
The defendant may erroneously believe that there is no evidence against them, or the prosecutor may believe that the case against the defendant is solid.
This may have resulted in the pre-preliminary hearing negotiations concerning the case in a deadlock where the defendant is unable to accept any settlement and the prosecutor is unwilling to offer a reduced offense or a lenient sentence.
After the preliminary hearing, there is often an opportunity for the parties to:
- reassess their positions and come to a favorable resolution through a negotiated plea deal;
- which recognizes more accurately the relative strengths and weaknesses of the evidence against the defendant.
Many cases resolve very shortly after preliminary hearing for this reason.
Waiving Right to Preliminary Hearing
In rare cases, the defendant will choose to waive the right to a preliminary hearing and proceed directly to the trial court on the felony charges.
This is almost always unadvisable given the essentially free opportunity to cross-examine the government's case which is afforded by the prelim.
That said, the defendant ultimately has the sole right to determine whether the case will proceed to preliminary hearing, or not.
This is a decision which should be made in close consultation with defense counsel.
Criminal Defense for California Crimes
At Eisner Gorin LLP, our law firm partners are former Los Angeles County prosecutors, and we know the most effective methods to accomplish this task.
If you, or someone you know, has been charged with a felony offense in California state court and is pending preliminary hearing, consultation with experienced criminal defense counsel is crucial.
The preliminary hearing is one of the most important procedures in a felony case and affords the defendant multiple opportunities to work toward a successful outcome in his or her case.
Effective litigation of a preliminary hearing is, therefore one of the most important functions of defense counsel in California state felony cases.
Our law firm has two office locations in Los Angeles County, including Century City and Van Nuys. Contact our law firm for a consultation at (310) 328-3776.