Shortly after charges have officially been filed, and only in felony cases in California, Preliminary hearings are held. Their purpose is simple: the judge decides whether there is probable cause to hold a trial on the charges against the defendant, or whether the case should be thrown out for lack of evidence. The prosecutor calls witnesses and presents evidence to support their argument that a trial is necessary, and the defense can choose to cross-examine these witnesses and argue their side. Often, Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys will not try to prove their client innocent at this hearing, but rather use the preliminary hearing to get more information and find out what witnesses know.
“Prelims” are a lot like trials, but have no jury, and the prosecution only has to prove that a trial is necessary, not that the defendant is guilty of the accusations. Several outcomes are possible. The judge can rule that the defendant should stand trial for the original charges, he or she can reduce the charges to a less serious offense or, less commonly, the judge can dismiss the case. Dismissals are rare mainly because the prosecutor only has to prove that probable cause exists, that their charges are worth investigating at trial. Also, we mentioned above, defense attorneys are likely to save their strong arguments for trial, since they know they are unlikely to get the case dismissed at the preliminary hearing.