What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing in Utah Criminal Court?

The criminal court process can be quite lengthy and involved, with many different meetings and hearings scheduled before a case ever gets to trial. For those who are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system, you may have only a vague idea of how this process works. While you might know generally what happens at, say, a bail hearing, the term “preliminary hearing” is so vague that it is unlikely that anyone would know what it entails unless they have experience dealing with them. Below, our skilled Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers at Overson & Bugden explain what a preliminary hearing is, how it can affect your case, and what happens after the preliminary hearing if the charges are not dropped.

Utah Preliminary Hearings

The first thing that is important to note about preliminary hearings is that they only occur in felony or class-A misdemeanor cases, such as Salt Lake homicide or aggravated assault. Furthermore, even in those cases, the preliminary hearing is not mandatory, and can be waived. The prosecutor will almost always request for your consent to the waive this hearing, but you should never give it to them until you have retained and spoken with a skilled criminal defense lawyer like those at Overson & Bugden, who can help you understand whether a preliminary hearing could be beneficial in your case.

As noted above, the criminal case process can go on for many months, especially if it goes to trial. The preliminary hearing can be thought of as an attempt to avoid wasting time and resources on a case that the court believes is based on evidence that does not hold up to the sniff test. Basically, the hearing will function as a sort of mini-trial, where the prosecution will present their evidence and call any witnesses, and the judge will decide if there is probable cause to proceed with the case. This is a much lower standard than at a real trial, where you must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution must simply show that there is evidence suggesting that you “more likely than not” committed the crime alleged.

How Can a Lawyer Help You at a Utah Preliminary Hearing?

It is very important that you have a skilled criminal defense attorney like those at Overson & Bugden representing you at this hearing. If the case is based on flimsy evidence, we may be able to convince the judge that there is not enough there to find probable cause. If witnesses are called, we will have the chance to cross-examine them and poke holes in their testimony

Furthermore, even if the judge finds that there is probable cause, this hearing will give us a chance to see the case that the prosecutor is building against you, including the strength of their evidence and the reliability of their witnesses. It will give us a better sense of how the case might play to a jury and whether or not you have a chance of being found not guilty at an actual trial. Additionally, if the prosecutor feels like the hearing did not go particularly well, they may be more inclined to offer you a deal to downgrade or dismiss your charges, or to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement or pre-trial diversion program.

What Comes After the Utah Preliminary Hearing?

If the judge finds that there is no probable cause to proceed with the case, the charges will be dismissed and the matter will end there. If probable cause is found, as it is in the majority of cases, an arraignment will occur for felony cases, where you will be asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. An experienced attorney for Utah criminal arraignments like those at Overson & Bugden is likely to advise to you to plead not guilty while we continue to collect evidence and negotiate with the prosecutor about a potential deal. If your charge was a Class A misdemeanor, your arraignment will have already occurred at your initial appearance.

After this, we will begin or continue the process of plea negotiations if this is something that you are interested in. There will usually be a scheduling conference where the parties try to come sort or formal agreement on a deal. If you are a first-time offender charged with something like marijuana drug possession, this could include entering you into a pre-trial diversion program, where if you complete the program successfully, your charges will be dropped and you will not have a criminal record. Other possible deals include the prosecutor agreeing to downgrade the original charge or charges to something less serious or the prosecutor agreeing to recommend a lenient sentence to the judge in exchange for a guilty plea.

If a deal cannot be reached to your satisfaction or you simply do not wish to take a deal and want to proceed to trial, the scheduling hearing will be used for actual scheduling purposes. The judge will set up times for hearings on any motions, such as a motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of an illegal search and seizure, and will put the trial dates on the court calendar. For all felonies and Class A misdemeanors where you have the option of having a preliminary hearing, you will also have the right to a trial by a jury of your peers who must reach a unanimous not guilty verdict in order to convict you. However, you can choose to instead have a bench trial in front of a judge if you wish.

If You Need Representation for a Preliminary Hearing, Call Our Skilled Utah Criminal Defense Attorneys Today

It is best to hire an experienced South Jordan Utah criminal defense attorney like those at Overson & Bugden as soon after your arrest as possible, so that you can have representation at your initial appearance and bail hearing. However, if you did not act quickly to retain counsel, you will definitely want to do so before you decide whether to waive your preliminary hearing. If we believe this hearing could be beneficial to your case, we will reject any request to waive it and begin to craft the most persuasive arguments to convince the judge that the prosecutor’s evidence does not add up to probable cause. Call us today at (801) 758-2287 for a free consultation.