If you are charged with a felony or certain misdemeanors in South Carolina, you have the right to a preliminary hearing, which is sometimes called a probable cause hearing.
If, however, you fail to invoke this right by requesting a preliminary hearing within 10 days of receiving notice, it amounts to waiving this right.
Because the preliminary hearing represents an important legal right that can directly affect the outcome of your case, it’s important to have a better understanding of the process – and to have an experienced South Carolina criminal defense attorney by your side as you move forward.
What Does a Preliminary Hearing Accomplish?
For a case to proceed through the criminal justice process in South Carolina, there must be sufficient evidence for the prosecution to keep moving forward. Having sufficient evidence amounts to having what is known as probable cause for binding the defendant over to the grand jury for indictment.
Probable cause does not mean that the prosecution needs to establish your guilt, but instead means that there is enough evidence to convince a reasonable person that you could have committed the crime in question. Ultimately, a preliminary hearing represents the defendant’s legal right to address the matter of probable cause in the case against them.
What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing?
It is important to understand that your preliminary hearing is not a trial, and it is not heard by a judge. Instead, a magistrate will preside over the hearing, and you, as the defendant, are not even required to be there. In fact, you can neither testify nor present evidence at your preliminary hearing.
At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution generally calls a witness, such as the arresting officer or the chief investigating officer, to testify in relation to probable cause in the case. The preliminary hearing is unique in that hearsay evidence – or evidence that the witness heard from someone else but did not actually witness themself – is allowed.
While your criminal defense attorney can cross-examine any witnesses at your preliminary hearing, the line of questioning is limited to the matter of probable cause and cannot probe the full scope of the case.
Can Charges Be Dropped at a Preliminary Hearing?
After all the testimony and cross-examination is complete, the magistrate will review the testimony presented and determine whether the necessary probable cause is present, which means that the officer testifying had enough probable cause to charge and hold you in the first place.
If there is sufficient probable cause, the case will be bound over for trial, and if there isn’t, the case will be dismissed. It’s important to note, however, that even if the case is dismissed, it can still be presented to the grand jury for indictment by the prosecution. All told, dismissals are rare, and when they do happen, the prosecution often chooses not to proceed to a grand jury.
The Benefits of a Preliminary Hearing
Charges generally aren’t dismissed at preliminary hearings because the standard of probable cause, which amounts to a sound suspicion, is so much lower than the standard at trial, which is beyond a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, there is a range of important benefits that can be derived from a preliminary hearing, including:
- The opportunity to interact with the prosecution, which can provide your criminal defense attorney with a better idea regarding their stance and may lead to a beneficial plea deal
- The opportunity to hear the arresting officer’s side of the story and to question them on key points, which can inform your defense strategy moving forward
- The chance to have a charge reduced – in response to an arresting officer’s overreach
- The chance to have the charges dismissed – in those rare instances in which the standard of probable cause can’t be reached
- The chance to have the original bond reconsidered in terms of reducing the required amount or lessening the involved restrictions
Have an Experienced South Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney on Your Side
If you are facing a felony charge, availing yourself of your right to a preliminary hearing is in your best interest, and the formidable South Carolina criminal defense attorneys at Bannister, Wyatt & Stalvey in Greenville are standing by to help. Our dedicated legal team has a wealth of experience successfully guiding challenging cases like yours toward beneficial outcomes, and we’re also well-prepared to help you.
To learn more, don’t delay in contacting us online or calling us at 864-523-6928 today.
Preliminary Hearing FAQs
What is a preliminary hearing?
A preliminary hearing is an early hearing at which a magistrate will determine if there was enough probable cause to charge you with the crime levied against you in the first place and, therefore, enough to proceed to the grand jury. It is your legal right to have a preliminary hearing, and it allows your defense attorney the opportunity to get a better feel for the prosecution’s case against you, in addition to allowing other potential benefits.
What happens at the preliminary hearing?
A magistrate will preside over your preliminary hearing, and the prosecution will call a witness or witnesses – typically the arresting officers – to testify in relation to probable cause in your case. Your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses, which can provide your counsel with a deeper understanding of your case and with a better position from which to begin strategizing your defense.
What is a probable cause?
Probable cause is a requirement afforded by the Fourth Amendment. Before you can be arrested and charged with a crime, the arresting officer must have probable cause for doing so, which amounts to protection against unreasonable arrests, warrants, searches, or seizures. Probable cause can usually be established when there are reasonable grounds for believing that a crime was committed. Because the legal bar for probable cause is low, there is generally enough probable cause to proceed with a grand jury hearing.