Preliminary Hearings in Magisterial District Courts and Philadelphia Municipal Court


6/1/2018

What is a preliminary hearing? What can I expect at a preliminary hearing? Who will testify at a preliminary hearing?

A Philadelphia preliminary hearing in the Philadelphia Municipal Court or a preliminary hearing at one of the Magisterial District Courts in Pennsylvania is typically the first appearance in court that a defendant will have after arraignment. An arraignment occurs in court and is a court proceeding where the criminal defendant is formally read the criminal charges that he or she faces and enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. Bail also may be set at arraignment. If the defendant enters a plea of not guilty, a preliminary hearing will be held.

Philadelphia preliminary hearings are held in the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center. A preliminary hearing involving a juvenile victim or complainant will be held at Philadelphia Family Court. A preliminary hearing may be described as a “mini trial” but without all of the formal protections, such as the applicability of certain rules of evidence like the rule against hearsay. It is a proceeding that is used to screen out weak cases and to protect the defendant from being prosecuted in a case that has no foundation or basis in fact. Preliminary hearings are conducted without a jury – it is only a judge who will be making the determination.

At the preliminary hearing, it is the District Attorney’s burden to prove that a crime was committed and that the defendant is probably the person who committed it. This burden is very different than the strict burden of proof for the Commonwealth at trial, that is, to prove that a crime was committed and that the defendant is the person who committed it, beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof at the preliminary hearing is very low – the Commonwealth only has to prove its prima facie case, which means they must present enough testimony for the judge to determine there is sufficient evidence to hold the case over for trial in either Municipal Court (if the felony charges are dismissed for lack of evidence) or the Court of Common Pleas.

Preliminary hearings are only held if the defendant is charged with felony offenses. Preliminary hearings are not held for misdemeanor offenses. At a preliminary hearing for a defendant charged with felony offenses, the Commonwealth will call certain witnesses, typically police officers, to satisfy their very low burden of proof. Depending on the knowledge of the police officer regarding the facts of the case, the Assistant District Attorney may also call civilian witnesses to satisfy their burden of proof. Having an aggressive, skilled, criminal defense attorney on your side at the preliminary hearing is very important because this is the first opportunity you will have to attack the credibility of these witnesses through cross-examination. Cross-examination is important at the preliminary hearing because it forces these witnesses to “stick to their story” if the case is bound over for trial.

It is rare for the defendant to receive his or her discovery prior to the preliminary hearing. Typically, the only document that is available to defense counsel for the preliminary hearing in Philadelphia is the PARS, which is short for Preliminary Arraignment System. The PARS will give a broad overview of the crimes charged and a very brief description of the facts surrounding the incident, which is helpful to apprise the defendant of the witnesses and testimony he or she may expect to be presented by the Assistant District Attorney at the preliminary hearing.

Preliminary hearings are governed by the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. Despite the low burden of proof at the preliminary hearing, the defendant is still afforded certain protections. Specifically, under Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 542, a criminal defendant has a right to (1) be represented by counsel (2) cross-examine witnesses and inspect physical evidence offered against the defendant; (3) call witnesses on the defendant’s behalf, other than witnesses to the defendant’s good reputation only (character witnesses); (4) offer evidence on the defendant’s own behalf, and testify; and (5) make written notes of the proceedings, or have counsel do so, or make a stenographic mechanical, or other electronic record of the proceedings.

At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing in Philadelphia, the judge will either determine that the Commonwealth has failed to satisfy their burden of proof and dismiss the charges or find that the Commonwealth has satisfied their burden of proof and rule that the defendant should be held for court. If the defendant is held for court on felony charges, the case may proceed to the Court of Common Pleas. If the defendant is held for court and the judge finds that the Commonwealth has only proved that the defendant committed misdemeanor offenses, the judge will “remand” the case for a trial in Municipal Court. 

The criminal justice system is confusing and tough to navigate. I will stand by your side every step of the way and do everything in my power to achieve the best possible outcome for you. I invite you to contact Wimmer Criminal Defense or call 215-712-1212 for a free consultation today.