In Maryland a preliminary hearing is typically the first court date scheduled when a defendant has been charged with a felony. In most jurisdictions this event is scheduled automatically by the clerk of court. It is customary, however, for a criminal defense lawyer to formally request a preliminary hearing when entering his appearance in a felony case. Preliminary hearings take place in the Maryland District Court for the jurisdiction in which the event being charged occurred.
Preliminary Hearings Concern Probable Cause Only
A preliminary hearing is not a trial and it typically isn’t an opportunity for the court to decide a defendant’s guilt or innocence. In most cases a preliminary hearing lasts little more than a half an hour. The primary purpose of a preliminary hearing is for the court to determine whether or not there is probable cause to support any felony charges. At a preliminary hearing the court is not concerned with misdemeanor charges. If the state is successful in showing that there is probable cause to support any felonies, then the case will be transferred to circuit court. It is worth mentioning here that probable cause is a much lower standard of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard that is used to determine defendant’s guilt or innocence at trial. In general, it is very easy for the state to convince a judge that there is probable cause. For this reason, almost all preliminary hearings end with a determination there is probable cause and with the case being forwarded to the circuit court. In those rare cases where the judge dismisses the felony charges, the case continues as a misdemeanor in the district court.
Preliminary Hearings and Bail
Defendants who are not incarcerated at the time of their preliminary hearings most often waive their right to have a hearing and allow the case to be transferred to circuit court. This is done because it is customary for Maryland District Court judges to review defendants’ bails at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing. It is a commonly held belief among criminal defense lawyers that the value of the preliminary hearing is not great enough to justify risking the defendant’s bail. Because there is no risk of losing bail when a defendant is incarcerated, it is standard practice to have a preliminary hearing whenever one is available.
Preliminary Hearing As a Discovery Tool
The chief benefit of having a preliminary hearing is that the defendant can get a preview of the state’s case against him. While the state does not have to prove it’s case to a legal certainty, the state does need to offer a broad outline of the crime and of the defendant’s involvement. In order to establish probable cause, the state will usually call a single detective as a witness. That detective is permitted to testify to what others involved in the case may know or may have seen. Hearsay is permitted. At the end of the witness’s testimony, the defense has the opportunity for cross-examination. Note that the defendant is not permitted to call witnesses or to testify on his own behalf. The preliminary hearing is only for the purpose of establishing whether or not there is probable cause to support the state’s felony charges.
Matthew Baum is a criminal defense lawyer based in Baltimore, Maryland. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland and in the District of Columbia. He has represented clients at hundreds of preliminary hearings in all types of criminal cases. Matthew Baum offers free consultations in all criminal defense matters. He can be reached at (410) 929-3435.