PA Supreme Court: Hearsay Alone Not Enough for Preliminary Hearing
On July 21, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a 2015 case that prosecutors relied on to use hearsay testimony alone to sustain their burden at preliminary hearings. The ruling in Commonwealth v. McClelland, No. 2 WAP 2018, overturns what has become known as the “Ricker Rule” referring to the 2015 case of Commonwealth v. Ricker.
At the preliminary hearing stage of a criminal prosecution, the prosecutor must present a “prima facie” case that criminal charges should proceed to trial. The system is designed to ensure that an independent magistrate determines whether a criminal prosecution should proceed, and the preliminary hearing acts as a safeguard against someone being charged with a crime with insufficient evidence.
Prior to the Ricker decision, hearsay testimony alone was insufficient for the prosecution to sustain its burden. Therefore, witnesses were required to provide testimony and be subject to cross examination. The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s ruling in Ricker allowed hearsay evidence to be the sole basis of a prima facie case, thereby making preliminary hearings almost meaningless.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in McClelland overturns the “Ricker Rule” and restores rights to individuals who are charged with a crime.
“Upon careful review, we hold the Superior court erred to the extent it concluded hearsay evidence alone is sufficient to establish a prima facie case at a preliminary hearing. Accordingly, we reverse the Superior Court’s decision in this matter and disapprove the Superior Court’s prior decision in Ricker, which similarly concluded hearsay evidence alone is sufficient to establish a prima facie case at a preliminary hearing,” the Supreme Court announced in McClelland.
While hearsay evidence remains admissible at preliminary hearings, it now cannot serve as the sole basis of a prima facie case. The McClelland decision re-establishes the purpose of a preliminary hearing and safeguards the rights of individuals charged with a crime.
This article is not legal advice and is provided for informational purposes only. Actual legal advice can only be provided after consultation by an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.