So, What is a Preliminary Hearing?

If you have recently been charged with a crime in Pennsylvania, you will be scheduled for a preliminary hearing before the local Magisterial District Judge. A preliminary hearing is your first opportunity to challenge the allegations made against you by the Commonwealth.

At your preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth must prove a prima facie case that (1) a crime has been committed; and (2) that you are the person who committed that crime. Essentially, the Commonwealth must prove that it is more likely than not that a crime was committed, and you committed it. It is important to remember that this decision is made by the Magisterial District Judge while assuming that the “facts” as the Commonwealth presents them are true. A defendant’s opportunity to challenge those facts occurs at the time of trial, not the preliminary hearing.

At the time of your preliminary hearing, you as the defendant are entitled to each of the following:

  1. to be represented by counsel;
  2. to cross-examine witnesses and inspect physical evidence offered against you;
  3. call witnesses on your behalf, other than witnesses to your good reputation only;
  4. to offer evidence on your own behalf, and testify; and
  5. to make written notes of the proceedings, or have counsel do so, or make a stenographic, mechanical, or electronic record of the proceedings.

It is very important to remember that the credibility of any witnesses testifying at the preliminary hearing is not at issue at the time of the preliminary hearing. Therefore, you cannot present evidence that a particular witness is lying about you or the incident in question. The Magisterial District Judge must assume that all Commonwealth witnesses are telling the truth. After making that assumption, the judge must determine that their testimony (assumed true) constitutes a crime and points to you as the perpetrator of that crime.

The purpose of the preliminary hearing is not to determine whether you actually committed the crime for which you are charged. The purpose is to determine whether you should have been charged with the crime. The Commonwealth will not have to prove you committed the crime until the time of your trial. Additionally, the Rules of Evidence are somewhat relaxed at the preliminary hearing. While the Commonwealth may present some evidence through hearsay, it may not do so to prove a material element of the crime charged.  

At the time of your preliminary hearing, your attorney (with your permission) will meet with the Assistant District Attorney and/or law enforcement officer to negotiate a potential resolution to your case. Those negotiations may result in a reduction of charges, ARD, an opportunity to apply for a treatment court  or an agreement on sentencing. If no agreement can be reached on a proposed resolution, you would proceed to a hearing.

If the Magisterial District Judge finds that the Commonwealth has proven that a crime was probably committed, and you were probably the perpetrator of that crime, your case will be “held to court.” This means that the case will proceed to the Court of Common Pleas for disposition. If the judge determines that the Commonwealth has failed to satisfactorily prove their case, your charges would be dismissed.

As in every stage of a criminal case, it is vitally important that you are represented by competent counsel. If you have been charged with a crime and are scheduled for a preliminary hearing, reach out to one of our attorneys at Lancaster Law Group today. We’ll review your case, provide you with legal advice, and prepare to defend you. 

DISCLAIMER – The information contained in this article is for general guidance on the subject matter only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on the specific facts involved. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, and the inherent hazards of electronic communication, there may be delays, omissions or inaccuracies in information in this article. Case summaries are primarily excerpted directly from the decisions authored by the courts. The decisions are cited and linked and the reader is encouraged to read the entire decision. Accordingly, the information in this article is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not herein engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice and services. As such, it should NOT be used as a substitute for consultation with a Lancaster Law Group attorney about this or any other legal issue. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should always consult with a Lancaster Law Group attorney.