To best describe what a preliminary hearing is, it is important to give some background regarding criminal law in Illinois. In Illinois, a person can be charged by one of two procedural devices. Those devices are (1) Indictment and (2) Information.
GRAND JURY INDICTMENT
An indictment is a formal criminal charge returned by a grand jury. A grand jury is comprised of citizens who are selected by random for jury duty. The grand jury meets in private and has the power to subpoena documents and witnesses. Typically, the prosecutor will convene a grand jury to present evidence hoping to seek a formal charge.
The prosecutor will call officers to testify before the grand jury. The officers testify and the grand jury is allowed to ask questions of both the prosecutor and the officers. The officer will inform the grand jury of the charges which they are asking the grand jury to indict the suspect on and the elements of that offense.
The grand jury deliberates in private without the prosecutor or the officer present. Their purpose is to determine whether there is some evidence that a crime has been committed and that it was committed by the accused. If the grand jury determines that there is sufficient evidence, the grand jury will return a True Bill. If the grand jury does not believe that there is sufficient evidence for the case to move forward, it will return a No True Bill.
From there, the accused may be arrested or given a notice to appear to the courthouse.
If a case is not taken to the grand jury, charges are initiated by the filing of a formal criminal complaint. This criminal complaint is filed by the prosecutor and no evidence is required for it to be filed. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to serve as a system of checks and balances so that prosecutors are not filing frivolous cases. Most felony cases in Illinois state courts are by complaint.
So, to answer the initiate question: What is a Preliminary Hearing in Illinois. First, it is a hearing in open court in front of a judge. Any person who is charged with a felony offense has a right to a preliminary hearing if they are charged by criminal complaint. The purpose of the hearing is so that the judge can determine if there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a crime has been committed and that it was committed by the accused.
At a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor will call a police officer, This officer can testify to things that he observed or heard as well as what other officers heard or observed. Unlike a trial, the rules of evidence are much more relaxed at a preliminary hearing.
When the state is done asking the officers questions, the defense lawyer will get an opportunity to ask questions of the officer. The defense will then get a chance to present witnesses (if they choose). The judge will then determine if probable cause exists to believe a felony charge has been committed. If the judge finds probable cause, the judge will give the prosecutor permission to file the information.
There are two important things to know about preliminary hearings. First, they are not a determination of guilt or innocence. It is a procedural formality to insure the prosecutors are not abusing their powers. Second, it is a great opportunity for defense lawyers to learn about your case.
People have the right to a preliminary hearing. However, individuals accused of crimes may waive their right to a preliminary hearing. Often times, defense lawyers waive preliminary hearings because they are lazy. They tell their clients that the judge will get mad at them if they have a preliminary hearing.
Our Criminal Defense Lawyers look forward to the preliminary hearing because they can begin attacking the State’s case. When officers testify at their preliminary hearing, it locks their testimony in for trial. Our lawyers beat a huge drug case (over 500 pounds of marijuana) because the officer testified at the preliminary one way and differently at a pre-trial motion hearing later. If our client would have waived his preliminary hearing, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison.
That is not to say that on occasion our lawyers will not recommend our clients waive a preliminary hearing. However, for our defense lawyers to do so there has to be a reason. For instance, if the prosecutor will reduce a person’s bond.
If you are charged with a crime in Springfield, Illinois or anywhere in Central Illinois, contact our Criminal Defense Lawyers today for a Free Initial Consultation at (217) 414-8889. Whether or not your preliminary hearing has occurred, our lawyers would be happy to speak with you.