Many people are often unaware of what happens in the early stages of a criminal case. Instead, they are focused on the trial itself. However, the initial appearances may set the groundwork for a successful defense of the charges or make it clear to the prosecutor that they have their own risk in taking a case forward to the jury.
The main issue that underlies all pre-trial proceedings is whether the state has the probable cause necessary to proceed with the charges. While the state does not need evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to file charges, it must have probable cause, which is defined as a reasonable belief that a crime was committed by the defendant. The court will make the prosecutor show evidence that allows it to conclude that there is probable cause. If not, the charges may be dismissed.
The Criminal Complaint in a Case
The prosecution will begin its case by filing a criminal complaint against the defendant. The complaint would include:
- A statement of the charges filed against the defendant
- The minimum and maximum punishment for each of the offenses
- The facts that lead law enforcement to have probable cause to believe a crime was committed
Probable cause is not a very high standard. The prosecution just needs to have a believable account of their story that could justify their own contentions that the defendant committed a crime.
The Initial Appearance in Front of a Judge
The defendant will then make an initial appearance in front of the judge. If the defendant is facing a misdemeanor charge, the judge will make a determination on the spot whether there is probable cause to move forward by reading the facts of the complaint at the bench.
The situation is different if the defendant is charged with a felony. Then, they will get an additional layer of due process called a preliminary hearing. The defendant must take the preliminary hearing seriously because it is almost like a mini-trial. The sides may call witnesses and present evidence to bear upon whether there is probable cause.
The government will at least call a law enforcement officer, and the defense will get a chance to question them. The defendant will also get to call their own witnesses to show that there is no probable cause. The judge is not supposed to consider the merits of each side at this point. All they are to do is weigh whether there is probable cause to go forward. They just need to determine whether the government has made a plausible showing of its case. It is a possibility that some of the more serious charges against the defendant could be dismissed at this point.
You Should Have an Attorney Accompany You to the Preliminary Hearing
Even if the prosecution must meet a lower standard for the case to go forward, there is every reason for the defense to expend all effort at the preliminary hearing. This is the defense’s first chance to poke holes in the prosecution’s case in front of the judge. If the prosecutor has a bad day in court, they will need to consider whether to move forward and the possibility of dismissing some or all of the charges. They may be more inclined to agree to a favorable plea deal, so they can still win a conviction and move on from the case.
The defendant will enter their plea once the judge has determined that there is probable cause. If they are charged with a misdemeanor, the plea will be entered the first time that they are in front of the judge. If the defense wants to challenge the sufficiency of the probable cause, they must do so before they enter the plea. Once they have made their plea in court, the case will move forward to the next stages.
Not every charge may survive the probable cause hearing. The judge may decide to dismiss some or all of the charges. After the hearing has concluded, the prosecution must file an information that lists all the remaining charges. At that point, the defendant will enter their plea with the court.
You Can Begin to Weaken the Prosecution’s Case at a Preliminary Hearing
A defendant should have an experienced criminal defense attorney working for them by the time that they appear in court for the first time. The initial appearance in front of the judge will send a message to the court. If the defendant shows up with an experienced attorney, it will show the prosecutor that they are serious about defending the charges. Both the defense and the prosecutor may bring in evidence that would not be allowed at trial that bears upon the issue of probable cause. At this point, your lawyer needs to be familiar enough with your case to present evidence, meaning that they have already had time to work. Therefore, you should call an experienced lawyer right after you have been charged, so they can begin to prepare for the early stages of the case.
Those who appear on their own behalf may appear to be weaker and less knowledgeable. One can be certain that the judge is taking notes and making mental impressions based on what they see and hear. You can be certain that the prosecutor will have done their homework and is ready for the initial appearances.
Call an Appleton Criminal Defense Attorney
If you have been charged with a crime, it is crucial to immediately contact and hire a criminal defense attorney. There is much more than just your freedom on the line. The experienced attorneys at Hogan Eickhoff will work hard on your behalf to achieve the best legal outcome. We are available whenever you call us. You can message us online or contact us at (920) 450-9800 to schedule a free initial consultation. We provide dedicated legal representation with compassion and empathy when it seems like most of the world is aligned against you.