Published on 5/13/2022, 6:42:00 PM
Preliminary hearing in Maryland - What does it mean?
Chances are if you are reading this article, you or a loved one has a Court date coming up labeled "Hearing - Preliminary" on Maryland case search, and you're not sure what to expect.
This article will address what a Preliminary hearing is, and the legal significance of having one. A preliminary hearing is not a trial date; however, it is a crucial hearing to attend and have an attorney for.
Preliminary hearings are an important part of a criminal case in Maryland. A criminal defense attorney should represent you during a preliminary hearing.
What is a preliminary hearing?
A preliminary hearing is a hearing scheduled by the District Court in a case that involves an allegation of a felony outside of the jurisdiction of the District Court.
Simply put - it's a probable cause hearing for a felony charge in the District Court.
Preliminary hearings are necessary when a case must either:
Go to Circuit Court by indictment or information; or
Have the felonies dismissed and set the remaining misdemeanor charges for trial.
A preliminary hearing should be set within 30 days of a Defendant's request for a preliminary hearing. This hearing can be continued only for "good cause".
Preliminary hearings can be waived by Defendants; however, we do not typically waive preliminary hearings in cases we handle. Preliminary hearings are conducted by District Court Judges across Maryland. The State is represented by a Prosecutor, defendants are represented by Defense attorneys and Public Defenders.
Why do I have a preliminary hearing?
You have a preliminary hearing because you, or your attorney, asked for a preliminary hearing at your initial appearance before a commissioner or a Judge.
What happens at a preliminary hearing?
One of several things will happen at your preliminary hearing:
The State will call a witness to testify as to what the probable cause is for your felony charge(s); or,
You will have already been indicted, and the State will inform the Court of the Circuit Court case number; or
Your felony charges will be dismissed or placed on STET by the State.
If the felony charges are dismissed, the Court will give you a trial date for your remaining charges in District Court.
If the State calls a witness to testify about the probable cause for your felony charges, the Court will decide if they've met their burden after the witness is cross examined by your attorney.
If the State has already indicted your case, your bond should remain the same and you will be issued a date to appear in Circuit Court for your initial appearance.
What does probable cause mean?
The Court uses a "Probable cause" standard to evaluate felony charges during a preliminary hearing. Probable cause can be boiled down to " a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed".
Probable cause is different than the "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that the Court would apply at a trial.
Think- "it probably happened". Imagine asking, is that belief reasonable?
Do I need a lawyer for my preliminary hearing?
The simple answer to this question is YES. If the State intends to proceed with a preliminary hearing, you will need an attorney to cross examine their witness.
The State's witness is often the charging officer, who is sworn under oath for his/her testimony. It's important to have an attorney present to ask important questions regarding the case, as this is often the only chance to question a Police Officer under oath before trial.
A preliminary hearing is also a valuable opportunity to learn about the type of evidence that the State might have in a case. Some examples of important questions for a criminal defense attorney to ask include:
How was the Defendant identified?
How many witnesses were there?
What type of physical evidence tied the Defendant to the scene?
What type of forensic evidence was collected?
Was there video surveillance?
Can I win my preliminary hearing?
Yes, you can "win" a preliminary hearing, by convincing a Judge that there was no probable cause to believe that you committed the felony you were charged with.
The result may not leave you satisfied though.
If I win my preliminary hearing, does the case go away?
Technically, if your attorney is able to convince a Court that your felony charges were not supported by probable cause, then the Court should dismiss the charging document "without prejudice". What this means is that the State can still recharge the case, including the felony charges.
Practically, some District Court Judges do not follow this rule strictly, and instead set the matter for a District Court trial. Even if it wasn't followed, the remedy would only be asking the State to re-charge the case anyway.
If the Court finds probable cause to sustain the felony charges ,the State will have 30 days to either indict you, or file a criminal information transferring your case to Circuit Court. The Court will also establish a "Felony Dismissal Date", by which the State must indict a Defendant.
Can I present evidence at my preliminary hearing?
Unfortunately you cannot present evidence at your preliminary hearing. Your attorney is able to cross examine any of the State's witnesses; however, a preliminary hearing is not a trial.
Your right to a preliminary hearing only entitles you to attend, and to argue to a Court that there was not enough evidence that a crime was committed.
Can I go to trial after a preliminary hearing?
You may take your case to trial after a preliminary hearing; however, it will have to occur on another date. A preliminary hearing is only to decide if there was enough evidence to establish probable cause for felony charges - that's why its a probable cause hearing.
Can I ask for a bond hearing after a preliminary hearing?
Yes, you are entitled to ask for a bond review at a preliminary hearing. Just because you ask, does not mean a Judge has to grant you an impromptu bond hearing.
Typically, to establish entitlement to a modification, or change, of bond status, a person needs to show a "change in circumstances". This often occurs at a preliminary hearing, because charges might be dismissed, trial dates might be established, and new information might have been revealed about a case.
How are Preliminary hearings different than Grand jury?
Preliminary hearings are probable cause hearings that determine whether charges should be dismissed or proceeded upon.
Grand juries are convened by State's attorneys' offices to establish probable cause while seeking indictments. In cases where probable cause is found during a preliminary hearing, a grand jury is typically presented the case for indictment within the next 30 days.
Often a grand jury hears a case before the scheduled preliminary hearing date, and the preliminary hearing is rendered "moot" because probable cause is no longer at issue.
Preliminary Hearing Lawyer - Maryland
Criminal charges in Maryland shouldn't be taken lightly. If you, or a loved one, has a preliminary hearing scheduled, it is likely that there are some serious charges brought by the State. Going to Court without an attorney could mean the difference between jail time or your freedom.
What does my lawyer need to do for a preliminary hearing?
Its up to your skilled criminal defense attorney to argue the State failed to present probable cause to believe that a crime was committed during your probable cause hearing. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will have a working knowledge of the elements of the crime that was allegedly committed, and how to argue against the State's version of the events.