preliminary hearing | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Procedural Law

A preliminary hearing is a court hearing to determine if enough evidence exists that a person committed a crime to move on to a trial; similar in function to a grand jury.

A preliminary hearing is a crucial step in the criminal justice process. It is a court hearing held to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a criminal trial. This hearing is typically held after a person has been arrested and charged with a crime but before the trial itself.

During the preliminary hearing, the prosecution presents evidence to the judge to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the crime with which they have been charged. The defendant and their attorney have the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and challenge the prosecution’s evidence. The judge will then make a determination as to whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

One of the main purposes of a preliminary hearing is to protect the rights of the accused. The hearing provides an opportunity for the defendant to challenge the prosecution’s evidence and to argue that there is not enough evidence to proceed with a trial. If the judge agrees with the defense, the case may be dismissed before trial. This is important because it prevents the government from arbitrarily holding a person in custody without sufficient evidence to support the charges.

Another important function of a preliminary hearing is to streamline the trial process. By allowing the judge to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case early on, the hearing can help to avoid wasting time and resources on a trial that may not result in a conviction. It can also lead to more accurate and just outcomes, as cases that do proceed to trial are more likely to be based on solid evidence.

Preliminary hearings are similar in function to grand juries, but they differ in some key respects. Grand juries are made up of a group of citizens who are tasked with determining whether there is enough evidence to indict a defendant and move forward with a trial. Preliminary hearings, on the other hand, are presided over by a judge and are typically held in open court.

It is worth noting that not all jurisdictions require preliminary hearings. In some states, for example, the prosecution may proceed directly to trial without a preliminary hearing. Additionally, the rules and procedures surrounding preliminary hearings can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the type of case involved.

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Last Modified: 04/06/2023


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