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The Preliminary Hearing Stage of a Criminal Case

Stages of the Criminal Justice System

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A lawyer advising her client before the judge in a criminal trial.
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When a not guilty plea is entered in a criminal case, a preliminary hearing may be held to determine if the case should proceed to trial. Sometimes called an evidentiary hearing, its purpose is to determine if there is probable cause that a crime has been committed.

During the preliminary hearing, a judge hears the evidence that the prosecution has against the defendant, not to determine guilt or innocence, but to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to a trial.

Evidence at a Preliminary Hearing

Both the prosecution and defense can present witnesses during a preliminary hearing and can cross-examine each other's witnesses, just as in a trial, in most jurisdictions.

During the hearing, it is the job of the prosecution to convince the judge that there is enough evidence to believe that a crime has been committed and the defendant committed that crime. It is the job of the defense to convince the judge that the evidence is not convincing enough and the charges should be dismissed.

The Grand Jury System

Preliminary hearings are not held in all criminal cases and in all states. Some states only conduct preliminary hearings in the case of felony charges, not misdemeanor crimes.

Some states utilize a grand jury indictment system, rather than a preliminary hearing. A grand jury is a panel of citizens who hear the prosecution's evidence in a criminal case to determine if there is probably cause to believe that a crime has been committed.

True Bill or No Bill

Unlike preliminary hearings, grand jury proceedings are secret and held behind closed doors. Usually, only the prosecution presents witnesses and the defendant and his attorney is not present. No judge is present.

After hearing the evidence, the grand jury votes either a "true bill" or a "no bill." A true bill means the jury has decided the case should proceed to trial.

Return to: Stages of a Criminal Case

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