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.


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.