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Preliminary Hearings in Los Angeles Criminal Courts

Posted by Sam Israels | Dec 18, 2019

In felony criminal cases in in Los Angeles County, you will have a guaranteed legal right to have a preliminary hearing. This is when the prosecutor must prove there is sufficient evidence supporting that you committed a crime.

The primary function of a preliminary hearing is for the court to decide if enough evidence exists to justify holding you to answer for the alleged crime. It's commonly referred to as a “probable cause hearing.”

During the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor has the burden to show that, based on the preponderance of the evidence, you did, in fact, commit the alleged offense.

It's designed to show a judge that the prosecutor didn't file frivolous charges, and they must show there is some type of reasonable evidence supporting guilt. It's crucial to note there is a very low evidentiary standard.

Normally, preliminary hearings are quick, but some cases take longer. There are cases where your criminal lawyer might show an affirmative defense against the allegations, but this type of strategy is not always appropriate because the prosecuted will be alerted to you defense plan.

If you were indicted before a grand jury, then no preliminary hearing will be held.

Overview of California Preliminary Hearings

In Los Angeles County criminal courts, preliminary hearings are one of the first stages in the pretrial criminal court process.

A judge will schedule a preliminary hearing at arraignment when you plead “not guilty.” If you decide not to waive your right to a speedy hearing, the preliminary hearing has to occur within 10 days of the arraignment.

It's a formal legal proceeding heard by a judge or magistrate to decide if sufficient evidence exist to “hold you to answer” at trial for the criminal charges you allegedly committed. Prosecutors will show evidence and call witnesses who can also be questioned your criminal defense lawyer.

During the hearing, there are only two primary issue that have to be decided:

  • Does probable cause exist proving a crime was committed?
  • Is there enough probable cause to believe you committed that crime?

The burden of proof to establish probable cause is on the shoulders of the prosecutor, but the evidence only has to show enough facts to convince a reasonable person that a crime did occur and you committed it.

Probable cause is defined as a state of facts causing a man of ordinary care to entertain a strong suspicion the person is guilty of a crime.

It can't be overstated that the standard of proof at a preliminary hearing is much less than a jury trial, where a prosecutor must prove every element of a crime – beyond a reasonable doubt.

Again, a judge only has to decide if there is a rational basis for finding probable cause exist. The evidence shown in a preliminary hearing doesn't have to be sufficient enough to support a conviction.

Most prosecutors won't show all their evidence available the preliminary hearing because they don't want to alert the criminal defense lawyer, who would then start preparing a strategy on that evidence.

However, the hearing gives a criminal attorney an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses to gain information on the evidence the prosecutor will be using against you to obtain a conviction.  You do have the option to waive a preliminary hearing and proceed directly to a trial.

After the preliminary hearing, but before a case proceeds to trial, your criminal defense lawyer and prosecutor will appear before the judge and make their pre-trial motions.

What Are Your Legal Rights at a Preliminary Hearing?

In criminal proceedings in California Courts, you have certain rights before and during a preliminary hearing:

  • To be represented by an attorney, a public defender or a private lawyer
  • To be present at preliminary hearing
  • To confront and cross-examine witnesses
  • To produce witnesses on your behalf
  • The right to discovery, including evidence of guilt or innocence
  • To be free of any physical restraints, unless necessary

It should be noted you don't have the right to all discovery, unless the preliminary hearing is held longer than 15 days after your attorney made a formal request for discovery.

Common Motions at a Preliminary Hearing

At the preliminary hearing, your criminal attorney could file the following common legal motions on your behalf:

Pitchess Motion 

If there is a reason to believe police misconduct occurred, a Pitchess motion is a formal request to get information of any previous complaints about the conduct of the police officer. Common examples of misconduct are excessive force and racial profiling.

In this type of motion, you are alleging the arresting police officer engaged in improper conduct. The Pitchess motion could force a prosecutor to hand over the officer's personnel file that might have evidence of relevant prior acts of misconduct.

If the judge grants the motion, they can suppress some evidence, but if there are relevant complaints, it may be possible to use witnesses to challenge the police officer's credibility.

Motion to Suppress Evidence

California Penal Code 1538.5 describes a motion to suppress evidence. If the judge grants his motion, it will normally result in the exclusion of crucial incriminating evidence against you. Thus, in most cases, the prosecutor will drop the charges.

During your preliminary hearing, your criminal defense lawyer will present a motion to dismiss the due to insufficient evidence. This simply means your attorney is stating there is not enough evidence supporting the charges and the case should be dismissed.

What are the Potential Outcomes of a Preliminary Hearing?

It's crucial to note that in the vast majority of preliminary hearings in Los Angeles, the court will determine there is sufficient probable cause to charge you – meaning you will be held to answer for the charges and case will be sent to another court within 15 days, where all future court dates will be held.  Other potential but rare, outcomes include the following:

  • No probable cause found and charges dismissed.
  • Some charges dismissed, but other charges will remain.
  • Further evidence discovered and new charges added
  • Judge reduces case from felony to a misdemeanor, if a “wobbler.”

A reduction to a misdemeanor is normally based on the lack of severity of the crime and no criminal record. The judge also has the discretion to reduce felony cases even where they fall under California's three-strike law.

If charged with a crime, your next step in preparing your defense is to contact our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers to review your case. We will examine all the details to determine if the was sufficient probable case.

Again, the level of proof required at a preliminary hearing is very low. We realize the procedures in a prelim favor the prosecutor, which is why you need a seasoned legal team on your side.

Cron, Israels & Stark is a team of highly experienced criminal defense lawyers located at 11755 Wilshire Blvd, 15th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90025.

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About the Author

Sam Israels

Sam J. Israels is a Law Firm partner with the Law Offices of Cron, Israels, & Stark. Mr. Israels received his J.D. degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law. Mr. Israels also previously worked at the Los Angeles Office of the City Attorney. He is admitted to practice law in the State o...

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