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Putting the government to its burden of proof, before trial

Everyone has experienced a situation at one point or another where they have been wrongfully accused of something. Most times, these incidents are minor in nature, such as disputes among family members that pass over quickly. On occasion, however, the accusations can be far more serious in nature, which can turn a person's life upside down.

In the criminal justice system, the government can bring serious charges against a person based on allegations of child pornography, fraud or other Internet-related offenses. Fortunately, there is a process in place to test the veracity of the government's allegations against defendants.

Normally, individuals may think the only way to put the government to its burden of proof is through a trial, which occurs after months of investigating the charges and evidence in the case. However, the criminal justice system actually has a proceeding in place to test the charges at a much earlier time.

Felony cases in Missouri typically begin with a preliminary hearing. This is like a miniature trial, in that witnesses will testify under oath with respect to the government's charges, and the government, defendant, judge and others will be present. As with trial, the government bears the burden of proof during the preliminary hearing, and it must present evidence to satisfy this burden of proof. The difference, however, is that the lower probable cause standard applies to a preliminary hearing, rather than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard that applies in a trial.

Nonetheless, if the government does not meet its burden of proof, the charges against the defendant can be dismissed. Accordingly, while the defendant can waive the preliminary hearing, it is another important safeguard that exists to protect a defendant's rights, as the government must satisfy an initial burden of proof before continuing on with the case.

Source: Missouri Attorney General's Office, "The Court Process," accessed on Dec. 26, 2014

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