Chapter 7: Criminal Procedure

Laws are in place to protect our community.  If a person breaks the law by committing an illegal act, also known as a “crime,” the government may punish that person.

How does a criminal case begin?

When a crime is committed, the police may (1) arrest the person or (2) issue a ticket. Whether an arrest is made or a ticket is issued is determined by the seriousness of the crime. The more serious the crime, the more likely there will be an arrest.

Once the police have information about the crime that occurred, they give the information to the prosecutor’s office.

What role does the prosecutor play?

A prosecutor is a lawyer who represents the government. The prosecutor will review the Missouri Criminal Code, which contains Missouri’s criminal laws, and decide whether to “charge” the person with a crime.  “Charging” a person with a crime means that the prosecutor will ask the government to punish the person for committing the crime.   Examples of punishment include time in jail or the payment of a fine. Examples of crimes in the Missouri Criminal Code include murder, stealing, burglary, arson, and many others.

Classroom Activity

Discuss whether the following are crimes:

1. Taking items that don’t belong to you without permission;
2. Talking loudly in a quiet neighborhood at late hours;
3. Throwing trash onto the sidewalk;
4. Failing to feed your pet;
5. Throwing a tennis ball at your friend.

A prosecutor can only charge a person with a crime if there is “probable cause” that the person committed the crime.  “Probable cause” exists when there are many clues, also known as “evidence” that show that a crime was more likely committed than not.

Classroom Activity

Discuss whether probable cause exists in the following scenario:

Your mom has always kept a jar of cookies in the kitchen. The jar of cookies is kept on the top shelf. After school, you walk into your kitchen and see that the jar of cookies is on the table. The jar is open and cookies are missing. There is a chair near the shelf where the cookies are usually kept. As you look around, you see that your younger brother has crumbs on his face.

What clues do you have that points to whether or not your brother took the cookies?

Can you prove 100% that your brother took the cookies?

The prosecutor will also determine the seriousness of the crime. The seriousness of a crime is broken up into three categories: felony, misdemeanor, or infraction. A felony is the most serious, while an infraction is the least serious. The more serious the crime, the greater the punishment.

What role does the Judge play?

Once a person is charged with a crime, a judge will review the probable cause statement. The judge will consider whether the defendant is a flight risk and whether he is a threat to the community.

If a person is charged with a felony, his or her case will be reviewed by either a judge at a “preliminary hearing” or by a “grand jury,” which is a group of randomly selected adults that reviews cases.  This review is to make sure that there is enough evidence to prove that the crime was likely committed by the person charged. If there is enough evidence, the case will move forward to trial. At this time, the person will have the opportunity to be “arraigned.”

At an arraignment, the person will be called before a judge.  The judge will inform the person of the offenses he or she is charged with.  At this time, the judge will ask the person if he or she committed the offense or if they are innocent.  This is called a plea of “guilt” or “not guilty.” If a person pleads “not guilty,” he or she has a right to take the case to trial.

At the trial, the person and the prosecutor will both be able to present evidence, like witnesses or documents, to make each of their cases. In a jury trial, a group of twelve people from the community will look at the evidence, and decide whether the person is “guilty” or “innocent.” If the person is “innocent,” then that person gets no punishment.  But if the person is “guilty,” that person will be punished.

by Eisha Ahmed-Petersen

Paid for by the Missouri Bar, Mischa Buford Epps, Executive Director PO Box 119, Jefferson City, MO 65102