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What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing?

If you face criminal charges in Tennessee, you likely will enter a not guilty plea at your arraignment. The next major step in your prosecution will be your preliminary hearing. As FindLaw explains, a preliminary hearing is not a trial. Instead, it is a hearing to determine if the prosecutor has sufficient evidence against you for your case to proceed to trial.

You will have no jury at your preliminary hearing. Rather, the prosecutor will present evidence to the judge about the crime you allegedly committed and the reasons why law enforcement officers believe you committed it. Generally, this evidence comes through the testimony of witnesses such as police officers and other professionals, such as DNA analysts, etc., who can testify as to the results of any tests run.

Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine each of the prosecution’s witnesses, and undoubtedly will attempt to discredit that person’s credibility, trying to call into question the methods, procedures, etc. used. While your attorney can also call witnesses on your behalf, most criminal defense attorneys choose not to do this since, bottom line, a preliminary hearing deals only with the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence to proceed to trial.

Standard of proof

You likely already know that in a trial, the prosecutor must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict you. At your preliminary hearing, however, the prosecutor need only prove that the evidence presented establishes probable cause for a trial jury to believe that you committed the alleged crime.

Not surprisingly, given this lower standard of proof, the prosecution “wins” most preliminary hearings. Generally, the only way the defense, i.e., you, can “win” the preliminary hearing is if your attorney can prove that law enforcement officials used unconstitutional or illegal methods to gather the evidence against you or that the evidence against you is so flimsy that the prosecutor should drop the charges.

This information is not legal advice, but it can help you understand the nature of a preliminary hearing process and what to expect at yours.