If you wish to plead not guilty to a crime you’re accused of committing, the next step in the legal process is a preliminary hearing (also known as a probable cause hearing).
These hearings are like mini trials that occur before actual trials, and they help judges determine if probable cause exists (in other words, if there’s enough evidence to believe a person has committed the crime they’re accused of committing).
When they begin, preliminary hearings involve the prosecution calling witnesses and the defense cross-examining those witnesses. The prosecution also may introduce evidence that may or may not be presented to the jury during the actual trial.
Although preliminary hearings are often stressful for defendants, they are one of the best weapons that defense attorneys have, as they allow them to present information and evidence directly to judges while also getting a “sneak preview” of the prosecution’s strategy, including their witnesses.
Judges Decide How to Move Cases Forward After Preliminary Hearings
One of the most important parts of preliminary hearings for defendants is their role in dismissing charges. Unlike actual criminal trials, preliminary hearings are before judges only—no juries are present.
After hearing both the prosecution and the defense’s presentations, the judge has a few options:
- Confirm the charges
If the judge decides that probable cause was found from hearing the presented evidence, they can bind the defendant over to the grand jury. From there, the grand jury can choose to return an indictment that formally charges the defendant with the crime or crimes they’re accused of committing.
- Dismiss the charges
On the other hand, judges can also decide to dismiss charges if they don’t believe probable cause was found through the presentation of available evidence.
- Reduce the charges
Sometimes, defendants are charged with crimes that are too harsh for what they actually did. In these cases, judges may decide to reduce the charges they’re facing after witnesses are called and evidence is presented. For example, evidence may result in a battery charge being reduced to an assault charge, or a voluntary manslaughter charge being reduced to an involuntary manslaughter charge.
- Alter bail
Judges can also change defendants’ bail if they’re in jail when their preliminary hearings occur. They may choose to increase or decrease bail depending on the nature of the crime and whether charges were reduced and if the prosecution or defense asked for changes in the bail amount.
Note that even if the judge dismisses the charges in a preliminary hearing, it’s still possible to be indicted by a grand jury in Tennessee.
Preliminary Hearings Can Help Defendants’ Cases
Because preliminary hearings play out similarly to actual trials, they can provide a preview of what’s to come if the case goes to trial. Experienced defense lawyers use preliminary hearings as discovery tools for trial, which means they note the evidence the prosecution presents, including witness testimony.
Although people are supposed to be 100% honest in court, this doesn’t always happen—especially among witnesses. When the prosecution’s witnesses aren’t 100% honest during preliminary hearings, the defense can “lock” them into their stories, which will then be repeated at trial.
At this point, experienced defense attorneys can point out inconsistencies and fabrications in their stories before the jury. Major inconsistencies in witness testimony can reduce their trustworthiness and believability in the jury’s eyes, which can help the defendant’s chances of receiving a not-guilty verdict.
Let Our Tennessee Criminal Defense Lawyers Protect Your Rights
Preliminary hearing are incredibly valuable tools for defense lawyers and their clients. In addition to creating the possibility that judges will dismiss or reduce charges before actual trials begin, preliminary hearings can also give defense lawyers a significant insight into the prosecutions strategy.
At Ralls & Wooten, we have leveraged the power of preliminary hearings for many clients facing criminal charges, including felonies. Our years of experience mean we know how to present evidence that maximizes the chances that judges will dismiss or reduce charges and that juries will return not-guilty verdicts for our clients.
We’re here for you if you’re facing criminal charges in Tennessee. Contact us anytime for a free consultation to learn how we can help during this difficult and stressful time for you and your family.