What is a preliminary hearing?
The bottom line: In a preliminary hearing in Tennessee’s General Sessions Court, the judge determines whether there is probable cause to continue to the next phase of criminal prosecution.
If you are charged with any crime in Tennessee, the first court you will appear in is the General Sessions Court. Many cases are resolved in General Sessions Court. In Tennessee you are entitled to a preliminary hearing if your case cannot be resolved in General Sessions.
During the hearing, the prosecution will offer evidence of the alleged crime. Often, this evidence is the witness testimony of a police officer involved in the arrest or investigation.
Your lawyer will have the opportunity to ask the witness questions under oath. You lawyer may also present witnesses to the court.
A preliminary hearing is not a trial to determine a defendant’s guilt. Instead, the focus is on whether there is enough evidence to bind over to the Grand Jury. After hearing the testimony, the judge will determine whether there is probable cause to bind over the charge to the grand jury.
- There is “probable cause” if there is evidence that makes it reasonable to believe that you committed a crime.
- “Bind over” means that the case will be sent to the grand jury.
- The grand jury is a group of 13 people who review the evidence and decide if there is probable cause (again!) to continue the prosecution in Circuit/Criminal Court.
If the judge finds that there is not probable cause, then the charge is dismissed.
Because very little proof is required to show probable cause, the reality is that most charges are bound over to the grand jury. Even so, the preliminary hearing is an important part of your criminal defense. In a future blog post, I will explain more about how a preliminary hearing can help you.
For a printable resource to help you understand the General Sessions Court process, please see my guide: Your Criminal Case in General Sessions Court in Tennessee.