The meaning and impact of legal terms are often foreign to most people who have been charged criminally in Pennsylvania.
For instance, following an arrest or interaction with law enforcement, a defendant may receive in the mail documentation from a Magisterial District Court noting the date and time for a Preliminary Hearing, which requires his or her presence. No other details are provided.
So, the first question the accused asks is, “What is a Preliminary Hearing?” It is probably the most frequently asked question among defense attorneys when first speaking with their respective clients.
In short, a Preliminary Hearing is a procedural safeguard for defendants, requiring the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, through the charging county’s Office of the District Attorney, to establish that there is enough evidence to proceed with the matter to the Common Pleas court level. The burden is on the Office of the District Attorney to establish a prima facie case against the accused, which consists of two components: (1) sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed, and (2) sufficient evidence that the accused committed the crime.
What is the Purpose of a Preliminary Hearing? Can it be Waived?
While the above sounds like a determination of guilt or innocence, it is actually a hearing to ensure that law enforcement officials and the Office of the District Attorney have conducted their due diligence before charges are worthy of further consideration at the higher court.
What Happens After a Preliminary Hearing is Waived?
Much can be accomplished at a Preliminary Hearing. Among other things, it provides the first opportunity for defense counsel to advocate on behalf of their clients. Negotiations may be conducted, certain charges may be dropped or changed in favor of a lesser offense, and, in certain cases, the matter may be dismissed entirely. You can even waive a preliminary hearing. It can be waived for many reasons, most commonly in exchange for preliminary negotiations on lesser charges.
So what happens after a preliminary hearing is waived or if the charges survive the Preliminary Hearing phase? The matter is “bound over” to the Common Pleas Court. A new docket number is assigned, and the next phase of the criminal procedure is triggered. The next step is the scheduling of a Formal Arraignment.
To get the most effective representation, contact the attorneys at Pyfer Reese Straub Gray & Farhat PC, serving Lancaster, Willow Street, York, Ephrata, and nearby communities.
What is a Formal Arraignment?
Somewhat like the Preliminary Arraignment at the Magisterial District Court, the Formal Arraignment is a proceeding wherein the defendant is required to stand before the presiding Common Pleas judge and be advised of the charges pending against them. The defendant is asked how they choose to plead to the charges, a record is made of the plea, and the proceeding is over.
If a defendant is represented by counsel, the rules permit what is called a “Waiver of Formal Arraignment”, the logic being that defendant’s counsel will have explained the nature and impact of the Formal Arraignment prior to the proceeding, thus releasing both the defendant and counsel from appearing before the court.
After the Formal Arraignment phase, defense counsel formally requests from the Office of the District Attorney what is called “Discovery”, which represents all of the evidence supporting the charges against the defendant.
At this point, the defense counsel will review the documentation and make preliminary determinations regarding the quality of the evidence provided as compared to the elements of the crime of which the defendant is accused. Defense counsel and their respective client then discuss how best to proceed.
Once the client and defense counsel reach an agreement on how best to address the outstanding charges, defense counsel will then, in most instances, begin negotiations with the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case, in the hope of an outcome agreeable to both the defendant and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Contact our team of Lancaster County Criminal Defense Attorneys: Christopher M. Patterson, Daniel C. Bardo, and Anthony Knabb DiDonato to help you navigate the process and to get the most effective representation.