The legal process is packed with terminology that can be misleading even to attorneys. For example, a pre-trial hearing certainly implies that trial is imminent or definite. Therefore, when our office advises a client, following an arraignment on a misdemeanor, that the judge set a pre-trial hearing, the client becomes anxious.
The client sometimes believes that his setting implies his or her case is going to trial without any attempt at plea bargaining. The client may believe that the judge on his or her own, or perhaps in cahoots with the prosecutor, is accelerating the case to pressure a guilty or no contest plea. The client may believe there will be a single further hearing, the pre-trial hearing, and then trial. These beliefs may be true, but, more often than not, they are mistaken.
This short article will attempt to explain what a pre-trial hearing is, why it is set, and what happens at such a hearing.
A pre-trial hearing is set by the judge to bring the parties, via their counsel, to court for the opportunity to resolve discovery issues and possibly have the judge hear and rule on motions to help resolve the case.
Discovery refers to the process of sharing documents, including videos and audio recordings that may become evidence if the case proceeds to trial. Discovery can also be revealing the name and contact information of a witness to the alleged crime.
A motion is a request by a party for the judge to rule in a certain way that will help the parties reach a plea bargain, force the prosecution to dismiss the case, or bar further prosecution.
A discovery motion is a request for the court to order a party, often the prosecution, to produce documents relevant to the case and the facts at issue. The defendant may file such a motion because he or she knows a witness was interviewed and that such a witness stated defendant did not commit the crime, or, for example, only did so in self-defense. The defendant wants the audio recording that the police took, but that the prosecution seems unwilling to provide, especially if the witness proves defendant's alibi is truthful, i.e. the defendant was in Las Vegas when the crime took place in Los Angeles.
A "Serna" motion is a motion to dismiss the case based on prosecutorial delay, depriving the defendant of his or her Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Such a motion often is brought when a citation or arrest happens several years before the client is arrested on a bench warrant.
A motion to suppress under Penal Code 1538.5 is a request that the judge order certain evidence inadmissible for some reason, often an illegal search and seizure. Our office files such motions more frequently than perhaps any other motion, often because a traffic stop is improper.
A "Pitchess" motion is a request for the judge to order a police department to produce a police officer's personnel record, to reveal a history of false arrests, coercing confessions, planting evidence, excessive force, or racial profiling. This type of motion is often filed in cases involving resisting arrest (Penal Code 69 or 148(a)(2)) or battery upon a police officer to lend credibility to a self-defense claim by defendant.
There are many other motions, but the above motions are some of the more commonly filed motions.
A pre-trial hearing is also a valuable opportunity for the defense attorney and the prosecution to discuss the facts in the case that are omitted from the police report, the errors in the police report and legal issues that a judge may rule upon if the case goes to trial. The defendant's prior record is often discussed. After this discussion, the plea bargain offered often changes, usually in some way to make it more attractive to the defendant
Pre-trial hearings are normally limited in number. Judges do want to resolve cases on their merits, rather than on expediency, however, they will not allow endless pre-trials. It is estimated that each pre-trial hearing costs the court approximately $100 in terms of court staff salaries, utilities, paper, etc. Therefore, most courts will cap the number of pre-trials at three or four before setting a date for trial.