Whenever someone charged with a felony contacts me, one of the first questions I get to answer is: "What is a Preliminary Hearing?" To answer this question, a little background information is necessary.
In Idaho, there are two ways that a felony criminal case can start: the filing of an "Indictment" or the filing of a "Criminal Complaint." Both processes require a finding of "probable cause" before the case can proceed. In the case of an "Indictment," the question of whether there is probable cause is presented to a Grand Jury. If the case starts with the filing of a "Criminal Complaint" the State must demonstrate probable cause to a magistrate judge. Most state felonies begin with a Criminal Complaint so most of my clients will need to be guided through the preliminary hearing process.
I've mentioned probable cause. This is a level of proof that the State is required to show before a criminal charge can go forward. No probable cause means no prosecution in the case. Idaho courts have defined probable cause as "the establishment of a belief by a reasonable person that the defendant had probably or likely participated in the commission of the offense charged." I use the shorthand: Probable Cause is sufficient evidence to lead a reasonable person to believe a crime was committed and the person charged committed it. Probable cause is a much lower level of proof than "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is the standard required for a conviction.
Now, to the meat of the FAQ. A preliminary hearing is the State's opportunity to convince a magistrate that there is probable cause for each and every element of the charge. Remember, no probable cause for any element of the alleged crime means no further prosecution in the case. The State is required to put on sufficient admissible evidence, via testimony, documents (think laboratory reports), and other things. The defense can object to the introduction of evidence. Also, although the defense may ask questions during a preliminary hearing, because this is not a trial, sometimes no questions are asked. The probable cause requirement certainly exists, but it is not terribly difficult for the State to satisfy.
If you're charged with a felony, you should to understand how it all works, from initial appearance through appeal. The attorney you hire should be able to explain to your satisfaction the entire process. A preliminary hearing is the second step in the process when a felony is started with a Criminal Complaint.
Stay tuned to this space for future posts concerning other steps in the process of a criminal charge in Idaho.