A preliminary hearing is a legal proceeding in criminal procedure where a judge determines if probable cause exists that a defendant has committed the crime with which they are charged. It may also be known as a probable cause hearing. 

A preliminary hearing only occurs after a defendant pleads not guilty at their arraignment hearing. In many jurisdictions, this hearing must occur within 30 days. The defendant, however, may waive this requirement if more time is necessary to prepare.

If the judge, also called the court, finds that probable cause exists, a defendant is held to answer for the charges and the case proceeds to trial. However, if the judge finds that probable cause does not exist, the charges are dismissed.

A preliminary hearing for DUI is similar to a mini trial before the trial. During this hearing, the court will determine if enough evidence exists to bind the defendant over for trial. During this process, as noted above, the court reviews the case to determine if probable cause exists, which requires the court to examine whether enough evidence exists to convince a reasonable jury that the defendant committed the crime.

What is the Purpose of a Preliminary Hearing?

The general purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine if probable cause exists to show the defendant committed the crime with which they were charged. The state, or prosecution, must only present enough evidence to satisfy this burden at the hearing. The preliminary hearing ensures that a defendant does not proceed to a trial in an instance where they are clearly not guilty of the crime charged.

During a DUI preliminary hearing, the court will review certain aspects of the case. To begin with, the court will review whether a prima facie, or on its face, case has been made. This includes whether or not the law enforcement officer had a legal reason to suspect the driver was driving under the influence. The court will examine whether or not a traffic violation led to the traffic stop.

The court will then examine probable cause. Probable cause includes those actions of the driver which led the law enforcement officer to suspect the individual was driving under the influence. This may include the smell of alcohol from the vehicle or the driver. If probable cause does not exist, the charges will be dismissed.

What Happens at Preliminary Hearings?

A preliminary hearing is conducted similar to a trial before a judge. It is important for the defendant to attend this hearing and treat the process respectfully, as though it were an actual trial. The defendant should dress appropriately and speak respectfully when required to do so.

During the hearing, the court will hear arguments from the state, or prosecution, and the defendant. Both sides may call witnesses and introduce physical evidence related to the charge. Preliminary hearing questions will likely include questions regarding what occurred leading up to the DUI arrest and what evidence exists the driver was intoxicated.

The defense attorney will be permitted to cross-examine prosecution witnesses as well as bring into question the accuracy of any evidence presented. These steps are taken to assist the court in determining whether or not probable cause exists.

Common questions to ask at a preliminary hearing include:

  • Was there probable cause to make the traffic stop?;
  • What actions of the defendant caused them to be pulled over?;
  • What evidence shows the defendant’s intoxication?;
  • Any other questions related to the traffic stop.

After the court considers all evidence presented and the arguments of both sides, it will determine whether probable cause exists and if the defendant will proceed to trial. There are only two possible outcomes of a DUI preliminary hearing. Either the charges will be dismissed or the case will continue forward to trial.

Do You Need to Attend a DUI Preliminary Hearing?

Yes, the defendant must attend a DUI preliminary hearing. It is possible to waive this hearing and proceed straight to trial, but that is not advisable. Most DUI cases do not make it to the preliminary hearing because many defendants choose to plead guilty, especially if the evidence against them is strong. This applies especially in cases where a breathalyzer test shows the defendant had a blood alcohol content (BAC) over the legal limit. 

The defendant can benefit from a preliminary hearing because it provides the defense a preview of the state’s case, including evidence, witnesses, and the content of the witness testimony. It also gives the defense an opportunity to see how strong the case against them is. 

Should the defense determine the prosecution’s case is weak, it may wish to proceed to trial and reject any plea agreements offered. The prosecution may also provide a stronger plea offer once the defense becomes aware of the weaknesses of their case.

Do Preliminary Hearings Occur in Most DUI Cases?

As noted above, the majority of DUI cases do not reach the preliminary hearing stage because the defendant pleads guilty upon arraignment due to strong evidence of DUI. Additionally, preliminary hearings may not be held in every DUI case where a defendant enters a not guilty plea. 

In some states, a preliminary hearing is only conducted when a defendant is charged with a felony. In some states, a grand jury indictment process is used in which a designated group of citizens determines whether, based on the prosecution’s evidence, the case should proceed to trial. In other instances, a case may be resolved prior to the preliminary hearing through a plea bargain offered by the state to the defendant.

What Are the Differences Between a Preliminary Hearing and a Trial?

There are several differences between a preliminary hearing and a trial. These include:

  • A preliminary hearing is much shorter and less time-consuming than a trial. A preliminary hearing typically lasts a few hours at most while a trial may take weeks; 
  • A preliminary hearing is presided over by a judge, where a trial may be decided by a judge or a jury;
  • The burden of proof is much lower at a preliminary hearing than at a trial; and
  • A preliminary hearing is used to determine whether enough evidence exists to bind the defendant over for trial, whereas a trial results in a finding of guilty or not guilty for the defendant.

Should I Contact a Lawyer Regarding My DUI Preliminary Hearing?

Yes, it is essential to have the help of an experienced DUI/DWI lawyer for your DUI preliminary hearing. This is the first place where the possibility of having your case dismissed exists. An attorney will know the process and what questions to ask in order to determine the strength of the prosecution’s case. 

Having an attorney may help you obtain a better plea deal if one is offered. In some cases, your attorney may be able to negotiate lesser charges for your offense. A DUI can have a significant effect on your life as well as the lives of your family and friends. It may affect future employment and the ability to operate a vehicle. Having an attorney on your side may be the difference between winning and losing your DUI case.