What is Habeas Corpus?

The law is filled with confusing terminology and Latin phrases. When you’ve been charged with a crime, it can be very difficult to figure out what it all means.

One term you may hear as you explore your legal options in response to criminal charges is habeas corpus. What is a habeas corpus motion in Pennsylvania state court, and when should you file one? (If you’re looking for information on federal habeas corpus relief, we’ll deal with that in a later article).

It all starts at the preliminary hearing…

What happens when the government of Pennsylvania charges you with a crime? First, you’re going to have a preliminary arraignment and a preliminary hearing (usually on two different dates). The preliminary hearing is, in some ways, the first step of a successful habeas corpus petition. At the preliminary hearing before a Magisterial District Judge, you’re going to have the opportunity to hear the evidence against you placed “on the record.” The police officer who charged you will testify along with any witnesses that he thinks are relevant to establishing why he had probable cause to bring charges against you in the first place. If the prosecution is successful in proving that the charges are based on probable cause, then the matter will be “bound over” to the Court of Common Pleas.

Once the case is “bound over” to the Court of Common Pleas, you will have a limited amount of time to request discovery (a copy of the prosecution and police case file against you), and then to file a habeas corpus motion.

Habeas corpus is Latin, and it literally means, “Do you have the body?” Habeas corpus has been called “The Great Writ” because it was one of the most important rights of the ancient world. Today, what it means is that you have the right to demand that the government explain why it is holding you on charges. If the government cannot justify its charges to a court, then you have to be released. Habeas corpus, in other words, is a petition that asks the court to completely dismiss the charges against you over the Prosecutor’s objection.

Should you file a habeas corpus motion?

So, why not file a habeas corpus motion, you might ask. A habeas corpus petition is a strategic measure. It’s the appropriate motion to file only when you believe that the government does not have any case against you even if the evidence they present is accepted as true. For example, where you present a successful motion to suppress evidence of your possession of a drug, and there is no evidence left to proceed with, a habeas corpus motion can allow you to finish off the charges. In other cases, where a key witness is likely not to testify (where they plead the 5th amendment to avoid their own prosecution, for example), a habeas corpus motion can successfully force the issue and have the case withdrawn.

But a habeas corpus motion is not the right tool for all situations. Habeas corpus will not succeed if the government has a case against you, but you simply don’t believe it’s enough to convict you beyond a reasonable doubt. A habeas corpus motion is what you file to challenge the government to produce its evidence in court. It can slow down the process of ultimately adjudicating your guilt or innocence. In many situations, you want your day in court as soon as possible, and a habeas corpus motion may actually delay that. In addition, if you waive your preliminary hearing, you almost certainly give up your right to a habeas corpus petition.

Conclusion

In short, whether to file a Habeas Corpus motion in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to dismiss your criminal charges is a decision you should only make in consultation with an experienced Criminal Defense Attorney. Call the Cornerstone Law Firm today so that we can help you to determine whether a Habeas Corpus Petition is right for you, or whether you should defend your action in another way.

What is the difference between a preliminary hearing and a preliminary arraignment?

If you have been charged with a crime, the first thing that usually happens is that you receive two notices in the mail from a Magisterial District Court, giving you the date and time for two separate hearings. One is called a preliminary arraignment; the other is called a preliminary hearing.

So what is the difference between these two hearings and what should you do to prepare for each of them? That is the subject for today’s Cornerstone Law Firm’s blog post.

The Preliminary Arraignment

The preliminary arraignment is the first step in the prosecution of a crime in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This is the first opportunity you will have to be in front of a Judge on your criminal charges. An arraignment is where you are formally inducted into the criminal justice system for the purpose of disposition of your charges. To put it more simply, this is where your bail is set, your charges are read, and where information is taken from you about the Court can get ahold of you in the event that you do not show up for a hearing. It is called a preliminary arraignment because there will actually be two arraignments during the process of disposing of your criminal charges. This is the first one, and if you retain an attorney, this is the only one you will actually have to attend. The preliminary arraignment is important because it is the opportunity for you to hear the charges for the first time and to also obtain a copy of the Affidavit of Probable Cause that a police officer has filed supporting the charges against you. It is also your chance to advocate for unsecured bail. That is, bail where you do not have to pay money down to be at liberty during the rest of your criminal case.

The Preliminary Hearing

The preliminary hearing is the second hearing that you will attend during the process of having your criminal charges dealt with. This hearing will typically be at the same Court that your preliminary arraignment was held and, in most cases, it will be a few weeks after the preliminary arraignment. At your preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth is required to put on its case against you to prove that it has a prima facie case against you. Prima facie is Latin for “first blush” or “at first look,” simply meaning, the Commonwealth must prove it has a good reason for charging you. That they have probable cause. At a preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth does not have to prove the burden beyond a reasonable doubt, their only goal is to prove to the Magisterial District Judge that the charges are not completely lacking in merit.  If they are able to prove that, then the charges will be “bound over” to the Court of Common Pleas. This is where the case gets going in earnest.

So, what is the point of a preliminary hearing? In a preliminary hearing, your attorney will have the opportunity to meet with the prosecution to discuss your case, to find out the likelihood of any plea deals being offered, and it is the first chance for your attorney to cross examine the police officer and potentially other witnesses against you.

The preliminary hearing is extremely important. In some cases, it is an opportunity to have all the charges completely dismissed. In other cases, it is a crucial opportunity to get evidence on the record that will lead to suppression of evidence when the case goes to the Court of Common Pleas. In other instances, it is best to waive the preliminary hearing, that is to forgo it, in order to secure a more favorable deal from the prosecution. In all these instances it is vital to be represented by a criminal defense attorney at the preliminary hearing.

Conclusion

We hope this article has been helpful to you as you sort out the difference between the preliminary arraignment and the preliminary hearing. If you have further questions about these hearings, or about your specific charges, we welcome you to call the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss your case.