As an experienced Maryland Criminal lawyer who has personally represented thousands of clients at the preliminary hearing stage, I am often asked by clients to explain exactly what is a preliminary hearing in Maryland?
In the Maryland criminal justice system, a preliminary hearing may occur when a defendant is charged with one or more felonies. In criminal cases in Baltimore City, preliminary hearings are automatically scheduled in all criminal cases. The practice in all other Maryland counties is to only schedule a preliminary hearing upon request of the defendant. Criminal defendants must make the request within ten days of the arrest or file a motion for good cause with a judge.
Preliminary hearings are conducted in the Maryland District Courts. If a judge finds probable cause, the case is sent (held over) to the Circuit Court for arraignment and possible trial. If the judge does not find probable cause that a felony has been committed by the defendant, then felony is dismissed. If a defendant is also charged with one or more misdemeanor, those charges remain and will be set for trial on another day at the District Court level.
Simply put, a District Court judge must find some link between the felony and the defendant. In most preliminary hearings in Maryland, the arresting officer will take the stand and read from his/her police report. The standard of review in a preliminary hearing is in the “light most favorable to the state”. In simple terms, the judge will give the prosecuting attorney the benefit of the doubt when determining if the defendant has committed the crime.
The defense attorney is permitted to ask limited questions pertaining to the facts. An experienced criminal defense attorney will try to obtain as much detail from the police officer, under oath, for use down the road at trial. For such reasons, holding a preliminary hearing may be useful to the defense-even if the judge does not dismiss the felony charge(s).
Often times a defendant will show up for court expecting a preliminary hearing, only to find that 1) the case has been indicted by a grand jury, 2) the prosecutor has exercised his/her discretion and dropped the felony(s), or 3) the entire case has been dropped (nolle pros) or placed on the stet docket (indefinite postponement). Often, an experienced criminal defense attorney can sway the prosecutor into dropping the charges even before the preliminary hearing is held.
In Baltimore City, preliminary hearings are handled much differently than in the rest of Maryland. For this reason, it is critical to have an experienced criminal defense attorney who is accustomed to practicing in Baltimore city. In Baltimore City, the state will often make or negotiate one time plea offers to criminal defendants. An experienced criminal lawyer can be of significant assistance in recognizing a good deal and negotiating a favorable result in these instances.
Unlike judges in the rest of the Maryland, several Baltimore City District Court judges will raise the bail of a defendant who exercises his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing. Identifying judges who operate in this manner is another benefit of representation by an experienced Baltimore criminal defense attorney. Far too often, criminal defense lawyers who are unfamiliar with the city judges are placed in a terrible position when their client comes in through the front door and leaves through the back door after holding a preliminary hearing.
For more information on a criminal defendant’s rights and the strategy of holding a preliminary hearing in Maryland, please contact Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White for a free consultation. We handle hundreds of preliminary hearings each year in Baltimore and District courts throughout Maryland.