District Attorney Underhill and MCDA Prepare to Shift to Preliminary Hearings

Beginning in November, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office will begin moving the practice of presenting felony cases to a grand jury to preliminary hearings as outlined in Chapter 135 of the Oregon Revised Statutes.

Preliminary hearings are held in open court, in front of a judge. The move to preliminary hearings will allow for greater transparency and a more streamlined process for providing witness statements to defense attorneys. The 2017 Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 505 – which calls for grand jurors to operate recording equipment and prosecutors to provide copies of the recordings after an indictment is returned.

District Attorney Rod Underhill described the move to preliminary hearings in two letters sent to Presiding Judge Nan Waller.

Read June 22, 2017 letter

Read July 2, 2017 letter

In the July 2 letter, DA Underhill described the primary motivation to move to preliminary hearings. He wrote:

The current method/use of Multnomah County’s grand jury has existed since the early 1980’s and has been present during my entire career. Prior to that, I am told, this county engaged in a robust preliminary hearing practice.  A significant part of the reason to move away from preliminary hearings to a grand jury practice was that there was a different definition, at the time, of responsible transparency.  The move to use grand juries in Multnomah County, rather than preliminary hearings, was viewed as a positive effort to include a much broader degree of citizen involvement rather than one person, a judge, ruling on the charging decision.

Today, I believe that responsible transparency includes a practice where citizens, if they choose, can see and hear in open court what is occurring, so that they can form their own opinions on a particular matter.

The move to preliminary hearings will, at least initially, impact the resources of MCDA and our system partners (court, defense bar, police and sheriffs). Thankfully, the Oregon Legislature foresaw the change and set aside nearly $8.5 million dollars in reserve funding to accommodate the changes brought about by the passage of SB505.

To view the Joint Committee on Ways and Means discussion, please click here (skip ahead to 1:04:20).

District Attorney Underhill believes that the move away from the grand jury process and toward the more open, transparent preliminary hearing process, will continue to foster increased confidence in our criminal justice system.