In a very important decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court changed the nature of preliminary hearings throughout the Commonwealth by holding that the prosecution can no longer simply rely on hearsay evidence alone to hold a criminal defendant over for trial. This decision expressly overrules previous decisions of the Superior Court, and much to the chagrin of prosecutors throughout Pennsylvania, fundamentally changes the evidence that must be presented at a preliminary hearing in order to hold a defendant over for trial.
The preliminary hearing is an important safeguard in our criminal justice system. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to protect a person from unlawful arrest and detention, to prevent someone from being imprisoned or required to enter bail for a crime which was never committed, or arrested and imprisoned for a crime with which there is no evidence of his connection.
After an arrest, the preliminary hearing is typically the first time a person charged with a crime will appear in court. Preliminary hearings are typically heard by a Magisterial District Judge who decides whether the evidence is sufficient to send the case to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings, usually stated as ‘binding or holding the case over for trial’. At a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor is required to show that there is some evidence of a crime committed and that the person charged committed it, this standard is known as prima facie. This standard falls well below the burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required to convict the person of a crime at trial, however, for the reasons stated above, is an important part of our criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, in recent years the meaning of the preliminary hearing has been eviscerated, with courts allowing cases to move forward solely on the basis of hearsay evidence. Often times, the arresting officer would simply recount the facts as outlined in his charging document, called an Affidavit of Probable Cause, and the magistrate would find sufficient evidence to bind the case over for trial, depriving the defendant of a meaningful opportunity to cross examine the witnesses or evidence against him.
This miscarriage of justice was made possible by the Superior Court case of Commonwealth v. Ricker, wherein the Superior Court held that nothing in the law constitutionally mandates an accused be afforded the opportunity to confront and cross-examine a witness against him at a preliminary hearing. This was despite a much earlier ruling by the Supreme Court which held that hearsay evidence alone is insufficient to establish a prima facie case at a preliminary hearing.
In the case of Commonwealth v McClelland, the Supreme Court expressly disapproved of the Ricker case, holding that hearsay evidence alone is insufficient to meet the prosecution’s burden. Hearsay is still admissible at a preliminary hearing however, and although the full panoply of trial rights do not apply at a preliminary hearing, the hearing is nevertheless a critical stage of the proceedings, and is no longer to be the mere formality it has become.
If you have been charged with a crime, you can Count on Mooney for vigorous representation. We are experienced, proven, and trusted through Central Pennsylvania in Criminal Defense. Call us today at 877-MOONEYLAW or at 717-200-HELP for a consultation. Mooney Law has 14 offices spread through Central Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland for your convenience.