What Happens at Pre-Trial Hearings? Staff Profile Picture
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Navigating the intricacies of the legal system can be daunting, especially when facing criminal charges. Pre-trial hearings play a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of a case, yet many individuals question what transpires during these crucial proceedings. With fewer than one percent of defendants going to trial and winning their case, it’s more important now than ever before to possess a significant understanding of each part of the criminal justice system, including pre-trial hearings.

This page delves into the key elements that typically unfold during pre-trial hearings, providing a comprehensive outline of the process. This page clarifies the courtroom dynamics from the questions a judge might pose to defense attorneys' strategies.


During the arraignment, the defendant is formally notified of the charges against them, and they must enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Their attorney will explain the charges, potential consequences, and legal rights, helping them decide on their plea.

Depending on the plea entered, the case will proceed differently. The process moves toward trial preparation if a "not guilty" plea is entered. If a guilty plea is entered, the court may move toward sentencing or await a plea agreement. 

Bail and Release Consideration

If the defendant is in custody, the court will conduct a bail hearing to determine if bail should be granted. The court considers factors such as the seriousness of the charges, the defendant’s criminal history, ties to the community, employment status, and potential flight risk. The defendant’s attorney may present arguments to support a reasonable bail amount or release. 

If bail is granted, the court will set a bail amount the defendant must pay to be released. In addition to bail, the court may impose certain conditions for the defendant's release, such as surrendering a passport, attending counseling, or staying away from specific individuals. Sometimes, the court may consider alternatives to traditional cash bail, like a supervised release program or electronic monitoring.


In the discovery phase, the prosecution and defense must share relevant evidence they plan to use in the trial. This may include documents, witness statements, evidence reports, and other materials that could impact the case. The defendant's attorney will review the evidence provided by the prosecution to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the case, identify potential defenses, and plan a strategy for the trial. 

If the defense believes that certain evidence is improper or objectionable, they can file motions to challenge its use in court. The attorney may argue against including proof they consider irrelevant, unreliable, or illegally obtained.


Attorneys for both the prosecution and defense can file motions with the court to request specific actions or decisions. These motions can cover a wide range of issues, such as evidence admissibility, procedural matters, or even asking for a change of venue. Motions are accompanied by legal arguments explaining the reasoning behind the request. These arguments can be presented during a preliminary hearing or in writing.

Plea Bargains and Settlement Discussions

Negotiations between the prosecution and the defense could lead to a plea deal or reduced charges, where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge or for a lighter sentence. While plea bargains can occur at various stages of the legal process, including before or after preliminary hearings, they are often discussed during this time. The defense may push for a more favorable outcome for the defendant, while the prosecution seeks a resolution without going through a full trial. 

If a plea bargain or settlement is reached, it will likely need to be presented to the judge for approval. The judge will ensure that the defendant's decision is informed and voluntary. However, the case may proceed to a preliminary hearing or scheduling of a trial date if a settlement is not reached.

Preliminary Hearing

During the preliminary hearing, the prosecution presents evidence and witnesses to demonstrate to a judge that there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and that the defendant is likely responsible. The judge evaluates this evidence, ensuring it is substantial enough to warrant a trial. The defendant's attorney may challenge the evidence or cross-examine witnesses. If the judge finds sufficient evidence, the case proceeds to trial. If not, the charges may be dismissed. 

Setting Trial Date

The judge will set a trial date if the case is not resolved through motions, plea bargains, or settlements. The defendant's attorney works with the court to determine a suitable date, considering factors such as the availability of witnesses, the complexity of the case, and any scheduling conflicts.

Once the trial date has been set, the defense attorney continues preparing the case for trial, gathering evidence, identifying witnesses, and developing a trial strategy.

What Questions Does a Judge Ask During a Preliminary Hearing?

During a preliminary hearing, a judge's inquiries will range from general questions to those that are more specific to your case. This helps to establish a clear understanding of the case and ensure a fair legal process. The following list includes some common questions the judge might ask to guide the proceedings. 

Do you understand the charges that have been brought against you?

The judge will ask the defendant if they know the charges to make sure they are aware of the specific allegations. This helps safeguard the defendant's right to a fair trial and informed decision-making. 

An attorney might respond positively if the defendant is well-informed, stating, “Yes, Your Honor, the defendant is aware of the charges and their implications.” Alternatively, if the defendant lacks understanding due to mental health issues or speaking a language other than English, the attorney might request clarification to express concerns about their comprehension. 

How do you plead to the charges: guilty, not guilty, or no contest?

The judge will ask for the defendant’s plea to establish their position on the charges. This plea forms the basis for further legal proceedings. 

An attorney will say their client is not guilty if the defendant intends to contest the charges and proceed to trial. "Guilty" indicates that the defendant accepts responsibility. "No contest" means that the defendant is not admitting guilt but not contesting the charges. The attorney's response reflects the defendant's plea while ensuring a clear understanding of legal consequences and protecting the defendant's rights.

Do you understand your rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to a fair trial?

With this question, the judge ensures that the defendant comprehends their fundamental rights, safeguarding the legal process. This helps prevent uninformed decisions and protects against self-incrimination. 

An attorney may respond, “Yes, Your Honor, the defendant fully understands their rights and their importance.” However, if there are concerns about the defendant’s comprehension due to language barriers or mental capacity, the attorney might address this issue with the judge and request additional explanation or support to ensure the defendant’s rights are respected.

Is there any evidence that you believe is important to present at this stage?

The judge asks this question to allow the defendant to present relevant evidence that could impact the preliminary hearing. This ensures a fair consideration of the case's merits. 

The defense lawyer might reply, "Yes, Your Honor, we have witnesses and documents that can demonstrate reasonable doubt regarding the charges." On the other hand, if the defense has no additional evidence to present or believes that specific evidence is more appropriate for trial, the attorney might respond, "At this stage, Your Honor, we will focus on presenting our case during the trial phase." 

Do you have any questions for the prosecution’s witnesses, if any are called?

By asking this question, the judge ensures the defendant's rights to cross-examine witnesses and challenge evidence during the preliminary hearing. 

One way the attorney could answer is, "Yes, Your Honor, we have questions for the prosecution's witnesses regarding the timeline of events and their observations." However, suppose the defense has no immediate questions or prefers to reserve cross-examination for trial. In that case, the attorney might reply, "At this stage, Your Honor, we will focus on addressing witness testimony during the trial proceedings."

How Long Does a Preliminary Hearing Last?

Sometimes, a preliminary hearing might last only a few hours. In more complex cases, it could extend over multiple days. However, It's important to note that a preliminary hearing is not a full trial. Its primary purpose is to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. As such, the length of a preliminary hearing is generally shorter compared to a full trial.

Can You Go To Jail at a Preliminary Hearing?

In most cases, defendants do not go to jail due to a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing aims to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial, not to determine guilt or innocence. Defendants already out on bail or released on their own recognizance will typically remain out of custody until the trial. 

However, if the judge believes that the defendant poses a flight risk or a danger to the community, they may modify or revoke bail, leading to the defendant being taken into custody. Additionally, if the preliminary hearing reveals new evidence or circumstances warranting an arrest, the defendant could be taken into custody. 

How Many Times Can a Preliminary Hearing Be Continued?

Typically, a judge may allow a preliminary hearing to be continued a few times to accommodate legitimate reasons, such as additional time to gather evidence, the unavailability of key witnesses, or unforeseen circumstances. However, the court could scrutinize repeated or excessive continuances, as they can delay the legal process and impact the defendant's rights. 

Why Would Someone Waive a Preliminary Hearing?

A defendant might waive a preliminary hearing to expedite the legal process for strategic reasons. By waiving the hearing, the case moves directly to trial without the need to present evidence or cross-examine witnesses at the preliminary stage. This can be advantageous if the defense believes that the evidence presented by the prosecution is strong and the focus is better placed on building a robust defense strategy for trial. 

For instance, consider a hypothetical case where the defendant is charged with burglary. Their attorney reviews the evidence and witnesses presented by the prosecution during the preliminary hearing and determines that challenging the evidence at this stage may not yield favorable results. Instead, the defense attorney advises their client to waive the preliminary hearing, allowing them more time to prepare for trial and strategize on presenting counterarguments, witnesses, and evidence that could potentially weaken the prosecution's case. 

What Happens After a Preliminary Hearing?

Several outcomes are possible after a preliminary hearing. If the judge finds sufficient evidence, the case proceeds to trial. The prosecution files formal charges, and both sides engage in further trial preparations, including evidence exchange and witness interviews. Alternatively, some jurisdictions allow the case to be dismissed if the judge determines insufficient evidence. In cases with weak evidence, the defense may file a motion to dismiss.

In situations where the case proceeds to trial, the preliminary hearing helps inform trial strategies, allowing both sides to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of their cases. Evidence presented during the preliminary hearing can impact trial decisions, such as witness selection and cross-examination tactics. 

How To Find a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Finding the right defense lawyer is crucial if you're facing criminal charges and preparing for a preliminary hearing. Our criminal lawyer directory allows you to browse through a curated list of experienced attorneys specializing in criminal defense. Each lawyer listed can provide the guidance and representation you need during this critical legal process, helping you navigate the complexities of your case and work towards the best possible outcome.

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