If you are charged with a crime you may or may not have a preliminary hearing before proceeding to trial. Your attorney should have 3 goals at a preliminary hearing.
- Get the charges dismissed or discharged
- Get the charges reduced (felony to misdemeanor)
- Collect information
At a preliminary hearing the Commonwealth, through the district attorney (prosecutor) will have to establish a prima facia case against you. A prima facia burden of proof is much lower than the proof needed to convict you at trial which is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A prima facia burden of proof is much similar to the civil standard which is “by a preponderance of the evidence”.
A prima facia burden of proof asks whether the Commonwealth has established that it is more probable then not that a crime was committed and that you committed it. The District Attorney, therefore, doesn’t have to present nearly as much evidence as he or she would have to at a trial. If a lower court judge finds that the District Attorney has met the prima facia burden of proof your case will be held for court. If your defense attorney believes that the lower court judge made the wrong decision he can file a Motion to Quash which is also sometimes called a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus.
This Motion to Quash or Writ of Habeas Corpus argues that the prosecution failed to establish the necessary burden of proof and that the evidence was insufficient. The motion asks that the higher court (the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania) find that the lower court (district court or municipal court) ruled incorrectly and that the case be dismissed for lack of evidence.
While Motion to Quash is an extremely difficult motion to win for the defense it is important that your attorney consider filing it if your case is held for court. At the very least, it will give your attorney the opportunity to learn more about the prosecution’s case and what it will focus on at trial. Many defense attorneys file Motions to Quash or Writs of Habeas Corpus to learn about the prosecution’s case. The Defense attorneys in the Aaron Hernandez case while ultimately unsuccessful used this tactic.