Hearsay is an out of court statement offered for the truth of a matter asserted by the party attempting to introduce it into evidence. Generally, hearsay is not admissible at trial because it is considered unreliable given that the speaker was not under oath and not subject to the opposing party’s cross examination. While there are a number of exceptions to the Hearsay Rule, the purpose of this blog is to explain the admissibility of hearsay at a preliminary hearing.
At a preliminary hearing a magistrate judge determines if a crime was committed and if the accused was connected to the crime. The evidentiary threshold at a preliminary hearing is the preponderance of evidence standard which is far below the criminal trial standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the preponderance of the evidence standard means that more than likely the defendant was connected to the crime. Procedurally, the preliminary hearing is the first screening of a crime and its function is not to try the defendant which is why it does not require the same high degree of proof or quality of evidence that is required at trial.
The prosecution and defense often use experts in presenting their case but those experts are usually not an issue during a preliminary hearing because the standard is simply if the accused is connected to the crime. DUI cases have caused significant controversy given that the “connection” to the crime is often established through the expert and not just the expert report. The expert report provides information of the accused Blood Alcohol Level (BAC) and the scientific method used to determine it. Defense attorneys have argued that a DUI prosecution requires the testimony of the expert as well as the introduction of the expert report, and without the expert testimony the expert report is inadmissible hearsay even with the lower evidentiary standard at the preliminary hearing. The defense argument is that the connection is the expert explaining the scientific method in the report which indicates intoxication which is the foundation for the charged offense. These arguments are usually made when the prosecution cannot present any police or civilian witness testimony of DUI impairment.
Despite these defense arguments there are several Pennsylvania Superior Court decisions that firmly hold that hearsay evidence is admissible for the purposes of a preliminary hearing. However, the testimony provided at the preliminary hearing form the basis of most pre-trial motions as well witness impeachment and assessing the credibility of testimony at trial. Although few cases are dismissed at the preliminary hearing stage, a strong defense argument often demonstrates the weaknesses in a case. Since the burden of proof at trial is beyond a reasonable doubt, if defense counsel can show the prosecutor the weaknesses in the prosecution’s case that may substantially reduce or eliminate the number and severity of the criminal charges against a defendant. If you need representation at a preliminary hearing please contact Gregory J. Spadea online or call our office at 610-521-0604 of Spadea & Associates, LLC in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania.