What is a Preliminary Hearing?


After an arrest for a criminal offense you may appear in court in a preliminary hearing before a trial is scheduled. Most criminal proceedings begin with an arrest. If the alleged offense occurs in the presence of a police officer, he or she can arrest the suspect right then. If it does not, the suspect can be arrested if there is probable cause.

After the arrest, you can have a preliminary hearing (also called a “prelim”), but it is your right to waive it. If you choose to have the preliminary hearing, the onus is on the prosecutor to prove the existence of probable cause. This is a pre-trial hearing in front of a judge, not a jury.

At Coolidge Law Firm, we have experience representing defendants after the arrest from the beginning at the preliminary hearing, arraignment, through to the trial. It can be a very confusing and stressful time and you may have many questions. Having a criminal defense attorney who can explain the process, guide you, and help you fight for your rights is critical. In this article, we cover what you need to know about preliminary hearings in North Carolina.

The Purpose of a Preliminary Hearing

The purpose of a preliminary hearing is for a judge to decide if there is enough evidence against you for you to stand trial, not for the judge to decide if you are guilty or not guilty. If you opt to have a prelim, the prosecution must provide enough probable cause to try you for what you have been charged with. They must show that what happened was both a crime and that you committed it. At this pre-trial hearing, the prosecutor doesn’t have to present their entire case against you, only a low level of proof.

What Happens in a Preliminary Hearing

It’s difficult to know what to expect when you haven’t been in the situation before. First, the judge listens to arguments from the prosecutor and then from the defendant’s attorney. The prosecutor can call witnesses to testify and can introduce physical evidence in an effort to convince the judge that the case should go to trial.

When the prosecutor presents evidence that shows probable cause, certain evidence that isn’t allowed in a trial can be allowed at the preliminary hearing. For example, hearsay can be allowed at the prelim as well as evidence that was gathered at the crime scene. In the actual trial for the crime, a prosecutor is not allowed to submit evidence based on hearsay. Additionally, at the trial he or she would have to show that any evidence collected was done so in a legal way.

Your defense attorney will cross-examine the prosecutor’s witnesses and call into question other evidence against you. Everything your attorney does is an effort to persuade the judge that the prosecution’s case is not strong enough to go to trial and must be dismissed.

Before and After a Preliminary Hearing

At any time prior to the preliminary hearing, a criminal case can be resolved through a plea bargain between you and the government. Sometimes the prosecution may offer its most favorable pleas before the preliminary hearing. At this point, because it is early in the prosecution process, they have not invested very much time and effort.

If the preliminary hearing goes well for the prosecution, they will be less likely to offer any plea. But, if the hearing goes poorly for the prosecution, the defense has the opportunity to negotiate better terms, and even have the case dismissed. Therefore, the timing of negotiations and agreements around preliminary hearings is very important. An experienced and savvy Raleigh criminal defense attorney knows how to navigate the intricacies of the process.

Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys in Raleigh

If you have been charged or think you may be charged for a criminal offense, call Coolidge Law Firm. Our experienced attorneys can advise you on preparing for your case. We can represent you through the preliminary hearing to put you in the best position for fighting the charges. We serve Raleigh, Cary, Wake Forest, Garner, and surrounding areas in Wake County. Call us at (919) 239-8448 or complete the contact form below.



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