Questions a Judge Asks During a Preliminary Hearing

The preliminary hearing is one of the criminal justice system’s safeguards against wrongful prosecution. Preliminary hearings require prosecutors to prove to the trial court’s satisfaction that the prosecution has enough evidence to convince a jury that a crime occurred and that the defendant charged with the crime committed it.

While preliminary hearings usually involve presentations of evidence and witness testimony, trial judges often ask questions to understand the evidence better to determine whether the prosecution has a sufficiently strong case. Knowing what questions the judge may ask during a preliminary hearing can help you prepare cross-examination questions, arguments, evidence presentation, and witness testimony to convince the trial court to reduce or dismiss your charges for lack of evidence.

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What Is a Preliminary Hearing?

A preliminary hearing is a court proceeding that occurs before a criminal defendant stands trial. The preliminary hearing comes after an arraignment and differs from an arraignment in several material respects.

Whereas an arraignment involves the trial court formally advising a defendant of their charges and taking the defendant’s plea to each charge, in a preliminary hearing, the trial court must decide whether the prosecution has enough evidence to go to trial. The trial court will evaluate the prosecution’s case under the probable cause standard, which asks whether the prosecution has sufficient evidence to convince a reasonable jury that a crime occurred and that there is a reasonable basis for believing that the defendant committed it.

The trial court must also determine whether it has jurisdiction to hear the charges. The trial court will dismiss the case if the evidence shows that the crime occurred in another county or state.

A preliminary hearing does not involve proving a defendant’s guilt, so the prosecution’s evidence does not need to eliminate every doubt of guilt. The prosecution must meet the higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard at trial. Therefore, if the prosecution doesn’t have enough evidence to meet the probable cause standard during the preliminary hearing, the trial court will dismiss the charges. However, the prosecution may have the right to refile the charges if it obtains additional evidence.

Some jurisdictions use the grand jury process instead of a preliminary hearing, where a citizen jury rather than the trial court decides whether the prosecution has sufficient evidence to bring a defendant to trial.

What Takes Place During the Preliminary Hearing? 

The trial court must hold a preliminary hearing within a couple of weeks of a defendant’s initial arraignment after the defendant pleads not guilty to their charges. A preliminary hearing operates like a “mini-trial.”

The trial court will first listen to the prosecution’s presentation during the preliminary hearing. The prosecution may present physical or forensic evidence, documents, and witness testimony supporting the defendant’s guilt.

The defense will then cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses and offer arguments to challenge the prosecution’s evidence’s relevance, reliability, or strength. The defense will attempt to convince the trial court that the prosecution has no strong enough case to force the defendant to go to trial. The defense may also present evidence and witnesses that establish affirmative defenses, negate the prosecution’s evidence, or impeach a prosecution witness.

The trial court will establish a case schedule and schedule a trial date if it finds the prosecution has proven probable cause to try the defendant on the charges. Otherwise, the trial court will reduce or dismiss the charges.

Questions the Court May Ask During a Preliminary Hearing

During the preliminary hearing, the trial court may ask the prosecution and defense various questions to establish a detailed narrative of what happened during the alleged crime and determine whether the prosecution should try the case. The trial court will not only ask questions to decide whether the prosecution has sufficient evidence to establish probable cause. They will also determine whether the defendant’s alleged acts meet the elements of the charged offense and whether the trial court has jurisdiction to hear the case.

Examples of questions that trial courts commonly ask during preliminary hearings include:

  • Where did the alleged crime occur?
  • When did the alleged crime occur?
  • What took place during the crime?
  • Who is the victim?
  • What were the defendant and victim doing before the crime?
  • Were there any witnesses to the crime?
  • What were the witnesses doing before the crime?
  • Did any witness consume alcohol or drugs before witnessing the crime?
  • Can the victim or any eyewitnesses identify the perpetrator in the courtroom?
  • How has the victim or any eyewitnesses described the perpetrator?
  • Has anyone identified the defendant as the perpetrator?
  • How quickly was the crime reported to law enforcement?
  • Who reported the crime to the police?
  • How was the crime reported to the police?
  • Was anyone with the defendant at the time of the alleged crime?
  • Is there any physical or forensic evidence?
  • Was the defendant arrested near the crime scene?
  • Does the defense have any evidence to support an affirmative defense or an alibi?

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help You Prepare for a Preliminary Hearing

A preliminary hearing will allow you to test the prosecution’s case. You could potentially secure a dismissal of the charges against you if the prosecution lacks sufficient evidence to establish probable cause that you committed the charged offense.

A criminal defense attorney can help you with your preliminary hearing by:

  • Independently investigating the charges against you to find evidence and witness testimony that challenges the prosecution’s evidence or proves your innocence
  • Ensuring you receive a timely preliminary hearing
  • Preparing you for what to expect during the preliminary hearing
  • Putting together a persuasive presentation of defense evidence and preparing a cross-examination strategy to challenge the prosecution’s witnesses
  • Making forceful arguments to the trial court to show that the prosecution doesn’t have a strong enough case to take you to trial

Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer Today to Get Experienced Legal Representation

If you’ve been arrested and charged with a crime, turn to an experienced criminal defense attorney to learn what to expect in your preliminary hearing. Contact De Castroverde Criminal & Immigration today for a confidential consultation to get help preparing for a preliminary hearing in your criminal case.