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  • Evan M. Howard

How Does a Criminal Case Proceed Through the Courts in Missouri

How Your Criminal Case Proceeds Through Court

After you are accused of a criminal activity, law enforcement officers start an investigation to gather enough evidence for the prosecuting attorney to decide whether or not there is enough evidence to charge you with that crime.

In Missouri, a person who is arrested must be released within 24 hours of their arrest unless there is an arrest warrant issued by a judge.


If the investigation by law enforcement officers lead them to believe that a crime has been committed and they believe there is enough evidence to show a particular person committed that crimes, the matter is taken to the prosecuting attorney. Once this information is given to the prosecutor, he or she will make the decision whether to file formal charges and what charges will be filed.

The prosecution will then file formal charges against the defendant. At this time, the prosecutor can go to a judge and ask for an arrest warrant for the defendant. The warrant application will describe the person being arrested, the crime that has been committed and enough probable cause to show the defendant is the person whom committed the crime.


After the defendant has been charged with a bailable offense, he or she will go through the bailment process. Here, a judge will determine if the defendant will be allowed release through personal recognizance, or if there should be a required bail amount to assure the defendant will show up to court when required.

Rule 33.01 requires “any person charged with a bailable offense shall be entitled to be released pending trial.” Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 33.01(a). Whether the defendant can leave on his or her own personal recognizance depends on a number of different scenarios and is up to the judges discretion.

The court shall in all cases release the accused upon his written promise to appear, unless the court determines that such release will not reasonable assure the appearance of the accused. If the court so determines it shall impose one or more of the following conditions for his release which will reasonable assure such appearance . . . (3) Require the execution of a bond in a stated amount with sufficient solvent sureties, or the deposit in the registry of the court of the sum in cash or negotiable bonds of the United States or of the State of Missouri or any political subdivision thereof . . .

Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 33.01(d)(3). Missouri also has a statute that addresses a judge’s discretion in setting bond amount allowing the judge to “impose any or any combination of the following conditions of release which will reasonably assure the appearance of the person for trial.” Mo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 544.455.

Preliminary Hearing

A preliminary hearing, or probable cause hearing, is a hearing held in front of a judge to determine if there was enough probable cause to make the arrest and the defendant was the person who committed the crime. There is a very low standard in order for the case to proceed. In other words, is it more probable than not that there was a crime committed and the defendant is the person whom committed that crime.

Preliminary hearing are only held in felony cases, not in misdemeanor cases. The defendant has a right to waive the preliminary hearing, and in some instances waiving the hearing might be the correct choice.

If the defendant chooses to having the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor will present evidence to a judge to show there was enough probable cause the crime was committed and the defendant is the person who committed the crime.

The prosecution will call witnesses to the stand to answer these two questions. Witness testimony will be under oath and will also give the defense an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses. A preliminary hearing also give the defense a look into the case the prosecution is going to present at trial, if the case goes to trial.

If the judge believes there is enough probable cause, the defendant will be “bound over” for trial. If, on the other hand, the judge does not believe there is enough probable cause, the court will dismiss the case and the defendant will be free to go. The case may also be dismissed by the court if the prosecution’s witness fails to show up.

Grand Jury

A grand jury proceeding is much like a preliminary hearing, with two main differences of a jury instead of a judge and the defendant is not present. In a preliminary hearing, a judge makes the determination if there is enough probable cause to bring the accused to trial. The grand jury is made of up 12 jurors and only 9 need to agree there is enough probable cause. Remember, all they need to determine is that there was a crime committed and it is more likely than not the accused is the person that committed the crime.

The other big difference between a grand jury and preliminary hearing is the fact the accused/defendant is not present. The prosecution calls its own witnesses to tell the jury what happened and the defense is unable to cross-examine those witnesses.

If 9 out of the 12 grand jurors determine there is enough probable cause, the defendant/accused in “bound over” for trial. If they don’t believe there is enough probable cause, the defendant will be released.


The first process of the criminal procedure is the arraignment hearing. This is where the defendant is formally charged and read the crime(s) he or she is being accused. Here, the defendant will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. In the State of Missouri, there is not a plea of no contest available to the defendant. If the defendant refuses to enter a plea, the judge will enter a plea of not guilty on his or her behalf. This process is open to the public.

After a plea is entered, the court, prosecution and defense attorney will set dates for hearing on pretrial matters and set a trial date. These dates are always subject to change.


After the criminal procedure has started, there are quite a few of steps in order to get to the actual trial process. Pre-trial matters such as discovery, plea bargains, continuances and conferences are some of the main matters.


Discovery is the process where the prosecution and the defense exchange the information they have relating to the case. The rules around discovery allow the defendant to be given information to prepare for trial and to be informed to make a plea.

There are additional requirements that require the prosecution to turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defendant. Exculpatory evidence is evidence favorable to the defendant that exonerates or tends to exonerate the defendant of guilty.

Plea Bargains

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defendant where the defendant pleads guilty and exchange for his or her guilty plea is agreeing to a lesser charge or is given a more lenient sentence.

The truth of the matter is the majority of defendant charged with a crime end up with some sort of a plea bargain. Reasons for this could be a number of things such as a lack of evidence or the evidence the prosecution has isn’t too strong.

Just because the prosecution and the defendant agree to a plea deal, it’s up to the court to accept the deal. The judge has the ultimate discretion in accepting or rejecting the deal. If the judge rejects the plea deal, the defendant can then withdraw his or her guilty plea.


A continuance is a postponement in the criminal process. Both the prosecution or defense can request a continuance. The party requesting the continuance must show they have “good cause” for making the request and is at the judge’s discretion.

Pre-Trial Conference

A pre-trial conference is a meeting between the prosecution, defense and judge prior to the trial. In these meetings the parties “touch-base” with each other and make sure the case is proceeding as scheduled. Here, the parties will discuss discovery, witnesses each plan to call and may even discuss evidence they believe should or should not be discussed during the trial.

During the pre-trial phase, the defense will determine if they want to argue its case to a judge or a jury. A bench trial is a trial without a jury and is instead argued to a judge. Here, the judge is, in a scene, the jury. If the defense decides on having a jury trial, the first step of the trial process is choosing the jurors. This is known as voir dire.

During the voir dire process, the judge, prosecution and/or defense is allowed to question juror to determine if they have any preexisting biases which would render them unable to render a fair verdict. For example, if you are charged with a DWI and one of the jurors had a family member killed by a drunk driver it’s fairly probable this juror would not be able to render a fair, unbiased, verdict.

When choosing jurors, the prosecution and defense both have two different ways of removing a potential juror from the jury; challenges for cause and peremptory challenges. Peremptory challenges are made by either the prosecution or the defense without needing to give a reason for not wanting this juror on the jury. In Missouri, if the punishment is death the prosecution and defense has 9 challenges each. In felony cases, each side has 6 challenges. In all misdemeanor and infraction cases, each side in entitled to 2 challenges. Mo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 494.480.1.

Challenges for cause are requests to have the prospective juror dismissed from the jury based on the answers to the voir dire questions. If these answers lead the court to believe the prospective juror cannot be fair or is biased, the prospective juror will be dismissed.

In civil actions, the jury shall consist of 12 persons unless the parties agree to have a lesser amount, but cannot be less than 8. In order for a lawful verdict to be rendered in a civil case, 3/4ths of the jury has to agree.

After the jury is picked, the trial actually begins. The prosecution presents its case first. It starts with opening statements where the prosecution will tell the jury what evidence it will present during the trial. Next the defense attorney presents his opening statement telling the jury its version of evidence it will present during the trial.

The prosecution will then present witnesses to introduce the evidence it has against the defendant. After each witness is questioned by the prosecution, the defense attorney gets a chance to cross-examine the witness. After all witnesses have been called by the prosecution, the prosecution will then rest its case.

At this time, it’s the defense’s turn to present evidence and witnesses to rebut the prosecution’s case. It will call witnesses and the prosecution will have a chance to then cross-examine those witnesses as well. After the defense has presented its case, it will rest and the trial will be over.

After the defense has rested, all that is left are closing arguments. This is when both the prosecution and defense get a chance to address the jury again and essentially recap everything that happened during the trial and all the evidence that was presented.

Then, the fate of the defendant is left into the hands of the jury. If they come back after deliberation and decide the prosecution has not met its burden, the defendant will be released. If they find the defendant is guilty, the defendant will proceed on to the sentencing phase. This is where the judge will take all the factors into consideration and determine the penalty or sentence the defendant will face.

#MissouriCriminalProcess #StLouisCriminalProcess #MissouriCriminalLaw #StLouisCriminalLaw

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