What is a preliminary hearing?

I have to go to a preliminary hearing in a General District Court in
Virginia.  What is a preliminary hearing?      When a person is charged with a felony in Virginia, their case will usually proceed through two different phases:    1)         A preliminary hearing in the General District Court; 2)         A trial in the Circuit Court.    The preliminary hearing is a very important first step in handling a felony charge, and it can have a significant impact on the final result of the case.  Nonetheless, many people have never heard of a preliminary hearing.  Even if they have heard of it, very few know what happens at a preliminary hearing. 

So, what is a preliminary hearing?   To begin, it will be helpful to recognize what a preliminary is not.  A preliminary hearing is not a trial.  For most people, the trial phase in circuit court is easily recognizable.  This is the phase that most people associate with courtroom dramas portrayed on TV. The trial phase is where the defendant will ultimately be found guilty or not guilty. If the case goes to trial, the defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers. All of the proceedings will be recorded by a court reporter.  The Commonwealth’s Attorney (i.e., the prosecution) must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  At the appropriate time, the defendant will have an opportunity to call witnesses in his defense, and he will have the option to testify in his own defense.  If the defendant is found guilty, the circuit court judge will impose a final sentence in the case.    Compared to the trial phase, a preliminary hearing may be described as a “mini trial” of sorts.  It is similar to a trial in some aspects, but it serves a different purpose.    The primary purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether there is probable cause that the defendant committed the offense for which he is charged.  Remember that a preliminary hearing is not a trial.  The judge will not decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.  The judge will only determine whether there is probable cause that the defendant committed the offense.   It is important to note that probable cause is very low burden of proof.  Almost everyone is familiar with the phrase “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” – that is the burden of proof for a defendant to be convicted at trial.  At the preliminary hearing, however, the burden of proof is only “probable cause.”  Compared to reasonable doubt, probable cause is a very,very low standard.  One description of probable cause is that, based on all of the evidence, “it is more likely than not” that the defendant committed the offense.  Another description is that, based on all of the evidence, “there is a fair or reasonable probability” that the defendant committed the offense.   Because probable cause is such a low standard, it is usually very easy for the Commonwealth’s Attorney to meet their burden of proof.  This means that the prosecution does not need to present their entire case.  They are not required to produce all of their available evidence.  The prosecution is not even required to use the evidence that they might use at trial.  The prosecution only has to produce enough evidence to show a reasonable likelihood of the defendant’s guilty.  Thus, a preliminary hearing is a type of “mini trial.”  Why is a preliminary hearing important?   Even though the prosecution is only required to show probable cause, a preliminary hearing is important because it is the first opportunity for us to learn about the case.  For example, at the preliminary hearing, we are able to cross-examine each of the prosecution’s witnesses.  This is an extremely valuable opportunity to closely scrutinize the witnesses.  After the preliminary hearing, we will have a very good understanding of their stories.  Were the witnesses believable?  Were their stories consistent with each other?  Did any of the witnesses appear to have a grudge against our client?  Did any of the witnesses have a motive to lie?  The answers to these questions are extremely valuable.    Witness testimony is only one aspect of a preliminary hearing.  We will use all of the information that we learn at the preliminary hearing to prepare for trial in circuit court.  By handling the preliminary hearing carefully, we can ensure that we learn as much as possible about the most important parts of the case.   If you have been charged with felony or any other criminal charge, please contact our office for a free consultation.   There are several different legal strategies to consider to defend against criminal charges. 

Each case is different, and it may be possible to avoid a conviction.  Additionally, we can explain what options may be available to lessen the potential consequences.    Do not assume that you can handle the charge on your own!!!  At the very least, we can evaluate your case and help you understand all of your options.  You have nothing to lose by calling.  Contact our office for a free consultation.  During the consultation, we will evaluate your case and discuss all of your options.  To set up a free consultation today, call (757) 301-3636, or call toll free (877) 214-9640.