Most people have heard about hearsay but aren’t familiar with how and when this evidence is used.

Hearsay is a statement made outside of court that’s offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. For example, a witness might testify about what someone else supposedly said or heard.

Under Pa. R.E. 802, hearsay evidence isn’t admissible except under certain circumstances. One of those exceptions is during preliminary hearings. This is a pre-trial court appearance when a judge decides whether a criminal case should move forward. But a new Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision says hearsay evidence alone isn’t enough.

If you’re charged with a crime in Chester County, PA based on the word of a police officer or someone else, contact Skinner Law Firm at (610) 436-1410 for a free consultation.

The Ricker Rule & Hearsay in Preliminary Hearings

A 2015 PA Superior Court ruling in Commonwealth v. Ricker allowed prosecutors to use hearsay testimony to establish a prima facie case at preliminary hearings.

The preliminary hearing usually takes place between 3 and 10 days after an arrest and is before a magisterial district judge. The prosecution is required to present a prima facie case, which means there must be enough evidence to prove:

  • There is probable cause that a crime was committed and
  • The defendant was the perpetrator.

Unfortunately, the allowance of hearsay evidence at preliminary hearings not only became an option, it became standard. It allowed a large number of criminal cases to move forward without much evidence against the defendants other than hearsay.

Another issue was defendants’ inability to defend themselves against exaggerations, misinterpretations, half-truths, and outright lies told through secondhand information. Typically, an officer would testify regarding the facts that led to the arrest and recount the alleged victim’s testimony. Because victims often would not testify and give their accounts firsthand, defendants couldn’t confront the witnesses against them.

A New Rule: Hearsay Evidence at Preliminary Hearings Isn’t Enough

The PA Supreme Court recently reversed the Ricker decision in Pennsylvania V. McClelland. The Court found hearsay evidence cannot be the sole evidence for establishing a prima facie case because it infringes on the defendant’s constitutional rights.

Now, prosecutors can’t rely on hearsay. They must offer the victim’s account as evidence or provide other evidence to establish a prima facie case. This is beneficial for defendants and their criminal defense attorneys.

If you are accused of a crime, you can defend yourself throughout the criminal defense process, not just at trial. You can cross examine witnesses, including the alleged victim, at the preliminary hearing, and in some circumstances, stop the false accusations from going any further.

Arrested? Get a Lawyer for Your Preliminary Hearing

With this recent ruling, preliminary hearings are once again a critical step in a criminal case. At your preliminary hearing, you’ll learn about the evidence the prosecutor has against you. It is your first chance to fight back against weak or misleading evidence. You also might hear testimony from the alleged victim. If they take the stand, your attorney can cross examine them.

During a preliminary hearing, you have the opportunity to show the judge the lack of merit in the charges against you. But without a defense attorney, you might not make the most of that opportunity. Reach out to attorney Michael J. Skinner if you’ve been arrested or become aware of a criminal investigation pending against you. A defense attorney can get to work immediately and pursue the best possible outcome.

Call (610) 436-1410 for a free, initial consultation with attorney Skinner.

Article Author

Michael J. Skinner, the founder of Skinner Law Firm LLC, is a former prosecutor with the Chester County District Attorney’s Office.

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