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Missouri Criminal Law - Process, Issues, and Research: The Criminal Justice Process

Last updated by Tyler Kraft, JD '24


The basic courses in criminal law and criminal procedure fail to teach students about the actual process of the criminal justice system. They fail to inform students regarding how a citizen goes from suspect, to arrestee, to defendant, to convict. They fail to provide a clear explanation of how the defendant's case marches through the court system and what occurs during each step.

Students often go into their first jobs having to learn this on their own, taking time away from their normal training to be acclimated to the basic principles and functions fo the criminal justice system. This guide will not be a complete guide regarding every step of the criminal justice system's processes, but it will provide an overview of the various steps and what takes place at each step.

The majority of the information here is derived from the Missouri Supreme Court Rules regarding Criminal Procedure.

The Arrest

A felony proceeding may be initiated by either complaint or indictment.

A complaint must name the suspect, provide a statement of the facts constituting the felony, and be supported by probable cause. If the complaint is sufficient, a judge will sign an arrest warrant, and the individual may be arrested.

An indictment follows similar requirements, except all of the information supporting an arrest of the individual is presented to a grand jury, which then decides whether there is probable cause to arrest the individual. A successful indictment bypasses the Associate Circuit Court.

Trial - Judge or Jury?

All criminal defendants in the United States have the right to trial by jury. However, the defendant is free to waive that right and have their case decided by a judge.


Criminal appeals in Missouri are governed by strict requirements. See generally Rule 30. To start, a notice of appeal must be filed within 10 days of final judgment. The notice for appeal should be accompanied by case information forms depending on whether it is civil or criminal. Cross appeals must be filed within 10 days of the first notice of appeal (see also Rules 81.04 and 81.08). While an appeal by special order may be granted when deadlines are not met, there is no guarantee that an appeal will be heard. Click here for more information on how to file an appeal in Missouri.

Associate Circuit Court


At the defendant's initial appearance in court, the judge shall inform the defendant of the felony with which he has been charged, the defendant's right to retain counsel, the right to request appointment of counsel, and the right to remain silent.

Note: An indictment by a grand jury will also lead to an arraignment, but that arraignment will take place before the Circuit Court.

Preliminary Hearing

When the State proceeds under a felony complaint, the associate circuit judge hears evidence against the defendant in order to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with the charges. The preliminary hearing takes on essentially the same role as the grand jury proceedings, with one major difference: During a preliminary hearing, a defendant has the right to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses.

The Guilty Plea

Some criminal defendants will choose to plead guilty to the crimes for which they are accused. Pleas of guilt are closely scrutinized by the court to ensure the defendant is fully informed and the guilty plea is made knowingly and voluntarily. Rule 24.02 sets out the requirements to be met in order for a guilty plea to be accepted.


During the pre-trial period both parties will submit pleadings and motions to the court. There will also be the gathering of evidence, including the discovery process. Missouri is unique in that it permits both parties to obtain orders requiring opposing witnesses to submit to depositions. Most states do not permit a party to force the opposing party's witnesses to be deposed. This allows the parties to lock down testimony and learn facts before the trial takes place.


Sentencing in Missouri is heavily automated in that it is statutorily driven. Statutes define the range of punishment, and the courts are not allowed to punish outside of that range. Some statutes will allow for the enhancement of punishment depending on the circumstances (usually prior offenses). 

Jury Sentencing

If the defendant is tried and convicted by a jury, the defendant has the right to have the jury determine the sentence (except in some statutorily defined circumstances). Furthermore, Missouri adopted a "bifurcated" system for jury sentencing in 2003. After a jury convicts a defendant, a new hearing takes place where additional evidence is submitted by each party in order to sway the jury in its sentencing decision. These hearings typically allow for more evidence to be admissible than during a regular trial.