The U.S. Constitution contains some bedrock principles about due process in criminal cases. These are meant to protect the rights of the accused and to ensure that the government cannot overreach in prosecuting crimes.
Among these are the Sixth Amendment provision that someone who has been criminally accused has the right to confront the witness against him in court. This right certainly applies at a criminal trial. But there has been some disagreement about whether it applies at preliminary hearings. These are short hearings, in court, wherein a judge decides if there is enough evidence for a case to proceed (and to force the defendant to stand trial).
For at least the past five years, it had become common practice in parts of Pennsylvania for prosecutors to present only hearsay evidence during preliminary hearings. This was often done as a courtesy to crime victims so that they didn’t need to appear in court more than absolutely necessary. In many cases, the arresting officer or someone else involved in the case would testify.
The state Superior Court ruled in 2015 that hearsay evidence was admissible in preliminary hearings, and many prosecutors have since been able to get cases moved forward solely on hearsay evidence. But a recent ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned that 2015 decision. As such, victims of crime will now be required to testify at preliminary hearings – or, at the very least, there needs to be evidence presented in addition to hearsay evidence sufficient to move a case forward.
While this may seem like a disservice to crime victims, the most important principle here must be the Constitutional rights of the accused. As one attorney noted about this Supreme Court decision, “It’s not giving [defendants] a new right, it’s giving them the constitutional right they have always had up until 2015.”
The government is far more powerful than any individual facing criminal charges. As such, due process matters if any accused person is to have a chance at successfully defending themselves. Thankfully, the state Supreme Court seems to agree.