Preliminary Hearings Galore! What Are They All for in Criminal Cases?

The criminal justice system can be a little overwhelming at times, especially if it’s new to you (let’s hope you never have to worry about that); but, what can you expect if you are served a complaint?  Or even worse, arrested?  One thing you can be certain of you’ll have plenty of chances to appear in court for hearings.  People are often quite anxious to be in court, but if you know what is going on and what can happen (and what can’t happen) it should help calm your nerves.
To begin the explanation, there are two types of criminal charges: misdemeanors (small crimes, such as petit theft, disturbing the peace, or reckless driving) and felonies (larger crimes, such as grand theft, burglary, or possession of drugs).  This article will focus on how felonies are processed in Kootenai County, Idaho.  Additionally, Kootenai County does not employ grand juries very often.  As such, this article will ignore the differences if you are indicted by a grand jury.  To begin, all felonies in Kootenai County are handled by the Kootenai County Prosecutor’s Office.  Once you are charged with a crime, you’ll receive a summons to appear at your first hearing.  Anecdotally, the summons usually begins with the following:

I don’t know about you, but if the State of Idaho’s greeting consists of felony charges, then no thank you… I would prefer to be left alone!  Regardless, the first hearing (called the “Initial Appearance”) will be scheduled pretty quickly; within twenty-four hours (not including holidays or weekends) if you are in jail.  The entire focus of this hearing is two-fold: 1) It is to make sure you know what you are being charged with, and 2) To see if you need a state-appointed attorney.  In fact, if you hire an attorney before this hearing, your attorney can file a notice of appearance.  At that point, your Initial Appearance hearing will be canceled and you can save yourself a trip to the courthouse.  If you are in custody (i.e. you’re in jail) this will also be the hearing where your bail is set.

Next, you’ll receive notice of a pair of hearings set within just a few days of each other.  The first is a Preliminary Hearing Conference and the second is a Preliminary Hearing.  The preliminary hearing is an evidentiary hearing, which means witnesses will be called on to testify and documents will be submitted into evidence.  As a result, the Preliminary Hearing Conference is designed to make sure that the parties are ready for the Preliminary Hearing.  At that first hearing, the judge will ask how many witnesses each side plans to put on the stand and make sure that everyone is ready for the Preliminary Hearing.

The Preliminary Hearing itself must take place within fourteen days of the Initial Appearance if you are in custody or within twenty-one days if you are not in custody.  The entire purpose of this hearing is for a magistrate judge to determine if there is “probable cause” that you committed the crime with which you are charged.  However, more often than not, criminal defendants waive their right to a Preliminary Hearing.  As such, this hearing is often canceled.  Although, it can be a great way to get a peek into what your trial would look like.  However, should you desire to go through the Preliminary Hearing, be advised that the rules of evidence are altered?  Some things that may not normally be admissible in a regular trial can be admitted during the Preliminary Hearing.
If you win at the Preliminary Hearing, your charges are dismissed, but, if you lose (or you waive your right to a Preliminary Hearing) you continue onto yet another hearing.  The next hearing is your Arraignment in District Court.  Your Arraignment is where you enter a “guilty” or “not guilty” plea.  Simple enough, right?  If you plead “guilty,” your next hearing will be Sentencing (where the judge determines whether or not you’ll go to jail, for how long, etc.).  If you plead “not guilty,” you will be scheduled for a trial.  Everyone has a rough idea of what the trial is.  This is where witnesses are questioned, documents are examined, and – OBJECTION!  Yes, those too, objections to evidence are made.
If the jury finds you’re innocent, then you are dismissed… no more hearings!  Yay! On the other hand, if you are found guilty, then you’ll be scheduled for Sentencing.  As stated above, sentencing is where the judge will determine what your punishment is.

So, there you have it.  A quick breakdown of all the typical hearings you’ll face as you walk through Kootenai County Felony charges.  Let’s hope that never happens to you; but, if it does, at least you’ll have a vague idea of what to expect.  I suggest dusting off that old suit, or dress because no matter how you slice it, you’ll be making plenty of courtroom appearances.

Post Falls Law can help you with hearings and criminal law