Overview of a Criminal Case
- Criminal or Civil?
- Filing of Criminal Charges
- Preliminary Hearing / Misdemeanor Trial
- Jury Trial
When a crime is reported, the police are responsible for conducting an investigation. After completing their investigation, the police may submit their reports to the Prosecuting Attorney. The Prosecuting Attorney then reviews the reports and decides whether to charge an individual with a crime.
Many people are confused by the distinction between civil and criminal statutes. The Missouri legislature enacts laws to govern conduct in this State. Currently, there are over seven hundred chapters of law in Missouri.
The Prosecuting Attorney is responsible for enforcing less than twenty of those seven hundred chapters. This office is charged with the responsibility of enforcing only those violations of law where the legislature has enacted penalty provisions that authorize incarceration as a punishment.
The great majority of disputes between individuals are civil in nature, and allow a person to sue for money damages. In some cases, however, the legislature has created laws to protect all citizens against a particular type of conduct. For those violations, criminal punishment is authorized, and it is those offenses this office prosecutes.
A criminal case begins when the prosecuting attorney files a charging document, called an information or complaint, against the defendant. That document sets forth the crime(s) the defendant is charged with.
The Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney has adopted guidelines for filing criminal charges. These guidelines guide the prosecutor’s exercise of discretion in the filing of criminal charges and promote consistency in case handling. Documents are submitted to the court and at that time a warrant may be issued for a defendant charged with a felony offense or a summons is issued on misdemeanor cases.
A crime is a felony if the possible punishment may exceed one year in the county jail. Felony charges include:
- Possession and/or manufacturing of drugs
- Some assaults
A crime is a misdemeanor if the possible punishment does not exceed one year in the County jail.
One of the first hearings in a criminal case is the arraignment. At the arraignment, the defendant is formally advised of the charge against him or her and is asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads not guilty, he or she may next proceed to a preliminary hearing if it is a felony or trial if the charge is a misdemeanor.
The Prosecuting Attorney will issue subpoenas instructing witnesses to appear in court for the scheduled preliminary hearing or trial. The length of a criminal preliminary hearing or misdemeanor trial can vary considerably depending upon the nature of the charges, the number of witnesses, and numerous other factors. The State of Missouri presents its evidence first. The defendant then may, or may not, decide to present evidence.
At a preliminary hearing on a felony charge, the judge determines if there is sufficient evidence (probable cause) to warrant the charge be bound over to the Circuit Court for trial. If a case is bound over to the Circuit Court, the defendant will, at a later date be arraigned at the circuit level and then a date is set for trial. If it is a misdemeanor trial an associate judge can determine guilt, or if the defendant requests a jury trial, the jury returns a verdict determining the guilt.
Most misdemeanor charges are tried to an associate circuit judge, but at the request of the defendant, the case can be tried to a jury. In most cases, the jury determines guilt or innocence, and if the jury returns a guilty verdict, the jury then recommends punishment. At formal sentencing, the judge can impose the sentence recommended by the jury, or less than recommended. The judge can never impose a sentence greater than recommended by the jury.
Only a defendant can request a jury trial. Few misdemeanor cases are tried to a jury, however, almost all felony cases are jury tried.
In all criminal trials, the State has the burden of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt". The defendant is presumed innocent and cannot be found guilty of a crime until all members of a jury unanimously find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In a criminal case, the defendant has absolutely no burden of proof. It lies with the State to meet its required burden.
Criminal prosecution requires a substantially higher burden of proof than a civil dispute. In a civil trial, the winning party merely has to prove to a majority of the jurors that it is more likely than not that an event has occurred. This burden of proof is "by a preponderance of the evidence". The reason for this distinction between civil and criminal proceedings is because in a civil action the court or the jury will award a money judgment, but in criminal proceedings, the defendant loses his or her freedom.
The Prosecuting Attorney will again issue subpoenas instructing witnesses to come to court on the day of the scheduled jury trial. As indicated, the length of a jury trial can vary considerably depending upon the nature of the charges, the number of witnesses, and numerous other factors.
The first step in a criminal jury trial is the selection of twelve jurors, which is called Voir Dire. The State of Missouri begins the trial by making an opening statement, which sets out all of the facts necessary to support a conviction.
The defendant’s attorney may then make an opening statement. The State of Missouri will then presents its witnesses first. The defendant then may, or may not, decide to present witnesses. After closing arguments by the attorneys, the jury begins deliberations, which will continue until a verdict is reached.
After a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty of a crime, the court will typically schedule a sentencing hearing within six to eight weeks. Prior to formal sentencing, the judge will order the Board of Probation and Parole to prepare a background investigation of the defendant, this is called a Sentencing Assessment Report (SAR).
On a defendant’s plea of guilty, the judge is limited by the number of years recommended by the Prosecuting Attorney, or after a jury verdict, the judge is limited by the jury recommendation. In either case, the judge may impose fewer years than recommended, but he/she cannot impose more. The judge may also grant probation rather than impose a sentence. The length of the sentence a defendant may receive depends upon the range of punishment set by statute and is determined by the type of crime for which the defendant is charged.
Before imposing sentence, the judge will hear from the prosecutor, the victim or representative of the victim, the defense attorney, and the defendant.
After formal sentencing, a defendant has an absolute right of appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals. On felony convictions, the Office of the Attorney General, in Jefferson City, represents the State of Missouri. The Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office represents the State only on misdemeanor convictions. The time it takes for the Court of Appeals to decide an appeal varies considerably, depending upon the number of issues raised and the complexity of the case.
The party that loses before the Court of Appeals may petition the Missouri Supreme Court for a review. The Missouri Supreme Court has discretion on whether to accept a case for review or not. It only accepts a handful of the cases presented for its consideration each year.