The Pre-Trial Motions Stage of a Criminal Case

Stages of the Criminal Justice System

Trial in a Courtroom
Robert Daly / Getty Images

After it is decided that a criminal case will proceed to trial, pre-trial motions can be presented to the court that can influence how the trial is conducted. Those motions can address many different topics and issues.

Pre-trial motions can address the evidence to be presented at the trial, the witnesses who will testify and even the type of defense the defendant can present.

For example, if a defendant plans to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, a pre-trial motion must be made to the court and a hearing conducted to determine if that defense will be allowed. The same is true if the defendant pleads guilty but mentally ill.

Each pre-trial motion can prompt a mini-trial before the judge in which witnesses can be presented. Most pre-trial motion hearings consist of the prosecution and defense making oral arguments to support their case, along with written arguments citing case law precedents.

In pre-trial motions, the judge makes the final decision. There is no jury present. For each side, depending on how the judge rules, that ruling can be the basis for a future appeal. The defense can argue that the judge made an error in the ruling, affecting the outcome of the eventual trial.

Pre-trial motions can address a broad range of issues. Some common ones include:

Motion to Dismiss

An attempt to get a judge to dismiss a charge or the entire case. If may be used when there is not enough evidence or when the evidence or facts in the case do not equal a crime. It is also filed when the court does not have the authority or jurisdiction to make a ruling in the case.

For example, if a will is being contested, the case would have to be decided by a probate court and not a small claims court. A motion to dismiss the case based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction would likely be filed.

Motion for Change of Venue

Most often a request for a change of venue of the trial is due to pre-trial publicity.

Famous Cases When Changes of Venue were Granted

  • The four Los Angeles police officers charged with assault of Rodney King in 1991, had their trial moved from Los Angeles County to Ventura County.
  • Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh was granted a change of venue from Oklahoma to the U.S. District Court in Denver, Colorado.
  • Beltway snipers Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad had their trials moved from northern Virginia to Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, in southeastern Virginia.

Motion to Suppress Evidence

Used to keep certain statements or evidence from being introduced as evidence. Seasoned judges will not admit any statement or evidence into evidence that could serve as a basis for a reversal of a conviction.

A motion to suppress evidence often addresses issues such as

  • Evidence seized illegally.
  • Confessions wrongly obtained.
  • Statements improperly obtained.
  • If there was probable cause to make an arrest.

For example, if police conducted a search without probable cause (in violation of the Fourth Amendment), an attempt to suppress the evidence found as a result of that search might be granted.

The Casey Anthony Case; Motion to Suppress Evidence

Casey Anthony was found not guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of her child, Caylee Anthony. Judge Belvin Perry denied Anthony's defense attorney's motions to suppress statements made by Anthony to George, Cindy, and Lee Anthony, pen pal Robyn Adams and correction's officer Sylvia Hernandez.

The judge also denied the defense's motion to suppress statements Anthony made to law enforcement because she had not been read her Miranda Rights. The judge agreed with prosecutors that at the time of the statements, Anthony was not a suspect.

Although the defense motions to suppress evidence were denied, Anthony was found not guilty. However, had she been found guilty, the denial to suppress evidence could have been used in the appeals process to reverse the conviction.

Other Examples of Pre-Trial Motions

  • To challenge the search warrant issued in the case.
  • To exclude some evidence gathered during the search.
  • To exclude statements made by the defendant to investigators.
  • To determine if expert witnesses can testify.
  • To challenge expert testimony.
  • To request a gag order in the case.