In Commonwealth v. McClelland, our Supreme Court ruled that the Commonwealth cannot rely solely on hearsay in order to establish a prima facie case at a preliminary hearing. Hearsay is an out of court statement made by a witness not present in court that is introduced by the Commonwealth to prove some element of their case. Until the past few years, the Commonwealth has been required to present witnesses able to describe for the court the events that led to a defendant’s arrest from their own personal knowledge. These witnesses were subject to cross examination to test that knowledge so a judge could decide if the witness was being truthful and the testimony supported a ruling that the evidence was strong enough to allow the case to proceed to trial. This requirement was diminished by our lower courts, which permitted the arresting officer to merely describe the witnesses’ testimony rather than present the witnesses in person. Consequently, the statement of a witness who was not present was not subject to cross examination. In ruling that practice impermissible, the Supreme Court emphasized that the purpose of the preliminary hearing was to establish that there was sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution going forward to trial. Otherwise, the preliminary hearing was nothing more than a rubber stamp for the prosecution.
As a result of this ruling, the preliminary hearing will again be one of the most important parts of the criminal process. It will allow an individual accused of a crime to see the nature and quality of the evidence against him or her and better determine how best to proceed before the case reaches the trial Court. This way, defendants can make sure they get the best result in their case.