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

When the government charges you with a crime in Pennsylvania, your first two hearings are the Preliminary Arraignment and the Preliminary Hearing. Both of these occur at the Magisterial District Court.

What is the difference between these two hearings? And what should you do to prepare for each of them? You can watch this quick video or keep reading to find out.

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. At an arraignment, a judge formally intakes you into the criminal justice system. The judge will set your bail, read you your charges, and ask for your contact information. The judge will put your contact information into the county’s system. This is how the Courts get ahold of you to inform you of future hearings.

This arraignment is “preliminary” because there will 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 have to attend. The preliminary arraignment is important because it is the opportunity for you to hear the charges for the first time. You will 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, which would mean you would not have to pay money down to be at liberty during the rest of your 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 occur at the same Court that your preliminary arraignment was held at. In most cases, the preliminary hearing follows the preliminary arraignment by a week or two.

At your preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth is required to put on its case against you. The Judge will only require the Commonwealth to prove that it has a prima facie case against you. Prima facie is Latin for “first blush” or “at first look.” This means that the Commonwealth must prove it has a good reason for charging you. They must demonstrate 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.

Preliminary Hearings are where you make a deal or prepare to fight

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. Your attorney will know how to explore whether the Commonwealth will be willing to accept a plea deal that is good for you. The negotiations that happen here are very important and often dictate the outcome of the case. If you mess up the negotiations here, the case can get much harder, and your best deals often come off the table after this hearing. This 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. At other times, 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 agree not to have the hearing—in order to secure a more favorable deal from the prosecution. But in all these instances it is vital to be represented by a criminal defense attorney at the preliminary hearing.

Conclusion

Having a criminal defense attorney by your side to advise and speak for you is crucial. 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.