Defendants held in custody without bond are entitled to a preliminary hearing under Georgia law. Preliminary hearings are a vital pre-trial proceeding where the defendant has an opportunity to be released from custody if the State cannot prove the existence of probable cause for the charges against the defendant. This adversarial proceeding affords the defendant the chance to cross examine the State’s witnesses and present evidence negating probable cause.
If the presiding judge determines probable cause exists for one or more charges, the case is then “bound over” to the trial court. If not, the charges have been dismissed[i]. This article will outline the laws governing preliminary hearings, the standard of proof, rules of evidence, role of the judge, and guidelines for how such hearings should be conducted.
What is a Preliminary Hearing?
Also called committal hearings, commitment hearings, or probable cause hearings, preliminary hearings are a post-arrest, pre-indictment, pre-trial hearing to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to justify detaining a defendant on the charges against him/her.
The State bears the burden of proving the existence of probable cause. The defendant has an opportunity to challenge the State’s case and argue for their release due to a lack of sufficient evidence justifying a probable cause determination. The defendant gets a sneak peek at the evidence in the case and the prosecutor has the chance to assess the strength or weakness of a given case.
Right to a Hearing
Although there is no Federal or Georgia constitutional right to such a hearing, Georgia statute O.C.G.A. § 17-7-20 provides for this right. The right to a preliminary hearing is waived, however, if the defendant posts bond on the case and is released from custody.
Preliminary hearings are conducted after a “reasonable” time is afforded to the State and defense to prepare for the hearing. If a defendant is deprived of their right to a preliminary hearing a reviewing court may grant habeus corpus relief.
Right to an Attorney
The preliminary hearing is a “critical stage” of the criminal process under the 6th Amendment and therefore defendants are entitled to the assistance of counsel. A defendant cannot be forced to proceed without an attorney if there is a reasonable probability of obtaining counsel without great delay. A defendant may testify at the preliminary hearing but should be cautious because the statement could be used against him/her at trial.
The Judge’s Role
At the preliminary hearing, the judicial officer shall:
- Explain the purpose of the hearing
- Inform the defendant of their rights
- Ask the defendant if they intend to enter a plea or otherwise waive their right to the hearing
- Make a probable cause determination for each charge
- Maintain a record of the proceeding
- Make rulings on objections by either party
- Provide a record of the outcome to the appropriate court
The rules of evidence apply at a preliminary hearing with the exception of hearsay evidence. Further, the right to confront witnesses under the 6th amendment does not apply as this is a trial right.
If you or someone you know has been arrested, contact the law firm of W. Scott Smith at 404.581.0999 today for a free case evaluation. You’ll find a local Atlanta attorney ready to aggressively fight on your behalf. You can also find out more detailed information about Atlanta laws here.
[i] Although the State may later try to indict the earlier dismissed charge via grand jury proceeding.