What is a Preliminary Hearing in a Criminal Case?
When someone is charged with a Felony in the state of Idaho, they are entitled to a Preliminary Hearing. A Preliminary Hearing is when the prosecutor is required to put on evidence to a probable cause standard that a crime was committed and that the person charged with the crime committed it. The purpose of the Preliminary Hearing is to prevent people from being charged or held in jail on felonies without any evidence. Essentially, what the State has to do is call witnesses to show evidence to a judge.
For example, if you are charged with a crime of Felony Possession of a Controlled Substance for possession of Meth, Heroin, Cocaine, etc. during a traffic stop, the prosecution will typically call the police officer that stopped you to testify. The officer will testify about why they stopped you, why they believed there were drugs in the car, how they found out there were drugs in the car, and that they confirmed in some way (chemical testing) that they were drugs. They will also testify about any other evidence indicating you knew you had the drugs. This does not mean the prosecution has to prove absolutely that you were guilty. Usually it’s just a basic overview of the case. For example, in the situation with the drugs and the traffic stop, if you were driving the car, you are the only one in the car, and drugs are found in the car, that’s probably enough to establish probable cause for the prosecutor to win the Preliminary Hearing without anything else.
Although Preliminary Hearings somewhat resemble a trial, they are not. If you lose a Preliminary Hearing, you still have all the other rights you possess under the Constitution. You are still presumed innocent, and you still have the right to a jury trial where the prosecution is required to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Losing at Preliminary Hearing simply means that the prosecutor has enough evidence to keep you charged with the crime; that’s it. Also, the fact that you lost a Preliminary Hearing is not used against you at trial. For example, the prosecutor couldn’t argue to a jury that you lost the Preliminary Hearing.
Once probable cause is established and the prosecutor has presented sufficient evidence to the judge, you will be “bound over” to the felony court, also known as District Court, because when the case started you were only at the magistrate court, or misdemeanor level court. If the prosecutor fails to present sufficient evidence to the court, the case may be dismissed.
What Does it Mean to Waive a Preliminary Hearing?
When you waive a preliminary hearing, you’re essentially conceding that the prosecution has enough evidence to keep you charged with the felony. You’re telling the court that you’re not going to make the prosecutor “jump through the hoops” of putting on the evidence. This is done for any number of reasons, and in most cases, Preliminary Hearings are waived. This is not an admission of guilt. Preliminary Hearings are simply waived as part of the plea negotiation process.
Typically what happens is the prosecutor makes some sort of plea offer. If your criminal defense lawyer and you think the plea offer is reasonable, you might agree to waive the Preliminary Hearing in consideration of the offer, which is essentially a “nod” to the prosecutor saying “hey, the offer is not terrible, we think you’re in the ball-park, so we won’t make you go through the hassle of calling in witnesses and going through a formal hearing. On the flip side, the prosecution does not want to have to go through Preliminary Hearings on every case, so their position may be that if a Defendant takes a case to a Preliminary Hearing, making the prosecution go through the effort, the prosecution might revoke the plea offer. So, as you can see, Preliminary Hearings are used as a bargaining chip.
How do I know Whether to Waive my Preliminary Hearing?
This is complicated. Every case and circumstance is different. There are so many factors that go into whether you should waive your Preliminary Hearing, including, what the evidence is, who the judge is, what the offer is, are the witnesses reliable and credible, do you anticipate going to a jury trial, are there legal issues you’re trying to weed out, and on and on... Deciding whether to waive a Preliminary Hearing is a question that needs to be seriously considered upon the advice of your criminal defense lawyer. They will be able to help make an informed decision related to your case and criminal charges. Sometimes waiving a Preliminary Hearing could be detrimental, and other times it’s just not that big of a deal.
In choosing a Boise criminal defense lawyer to help with your felony charges, you’ll want to ensure that they are experienced with Preliminary Hearings and capable of exercising that bargaining chip one way or the other. You’ll want your lawyer to be effective in questioning and cross examining witnesses and knowing whether it is worth your while to call witness at that time. It’s not a situation for beginners. Hooper Law Offices is very experienced in these felony charges and cases and dealing with Preliminary Hearings. We can help you understand the importance of a Preliminary Hearing in your specific case