What are the reasons to have a preliminary hearing? There are a lot of them. One example is when a defendant pleads not guilty to an offense, whether misdemeanor or felony, and the preliminary hearing gives the defendant an opportunity to hear some of the evidence and the opportunity to question the state's witnesses. An example of when this is important is when the defendant is questioning an officer concerning a traffic stop and subsequent arrest for DUI or an arrest for a drug or weapon offense. This is the opportunity to "set up" a Motion to Suppress.
Not all cases in general sessions courts will be set for a preliminary hearing. Many cases will be settled (pled) in general sessions court and do away with the need for having a preliminary hearing. However, in the event a case cannot be settled, whether based on a not guilty plea, or because the defendant is charged with a felony offense that cannot be settled in general sessions court, defendants, and their attorneys, should strongly consider the need for a preliminary hearing.
The state of Tennessee carries the burden of proof in a preliminary hearing. The state must be able prove there is probable cause to believe the defendant is guilty of the crime(s) for which the defendant is charged. The primary question in a preliminary hearing is not whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, but only whether there is probable cause the defendant committed the offense.
The defendant has the right to question the witnesses who testify in a preliminary hearing. This may be the defendant's only opportunity to question the state's witnesses before trial. Therefore, a defendant should make an effort to obtain as much information as possible relevant to the defense and prosecution of the case. A preliminary hearing is similiar to the civil lawsuit deposition.
There are times when a preliminary hearing may not be necessary. However, a defendant should be very cautious when considering waiving a preliminary hearing and "binding" a case to the grand jury. Each case is analyzed on a case-by-case basis. It should be noted that because there is no constitutional right to a preliminary hearing, if the defendant chooses to waive the opportunity to have the preliminary hearing, there is no getting it back.