Some people have said that criminal trials are often won and lost long before the jury is seated. They’re talking about the way pre-trial motions can affect the outcome of a case.
Somewhere between the preliminary hearing (where a judge has to make the call about whether there’s enough evidence to move the case forward) and a trial, your defense attorney may make several pre-trial motions. The success — or failure — of those motions can dramatically shift the balance of power between the prosecution and defense.
Some of the most common pre-trial motions your attorney may make include:
A motion to dismiss
A motion to dismiss basically asks the court to throw out the charges against the defendant altogether based on one or more specific reasons.
For example, in a drug possession case, maybe the lab results come back and show that the substance in your car that police officers identified as cocaine was actually powdered sugar from the doughnuts you had for breakfast that way.
A motion for a change of venue
This is a common request when the defense has reason to believe that a defendant can’t get a fair trial in a specific area, usually because of media coverage, public interest or political pressure.
For example, if a small-town murder received a lot of news coverage, it might be difficult for a defendant charged in that murder to get an impartial jury in that area — while jurors from another area might not feel as emotionally attached to the outcome of the trial.
A motion to exclude physical evidence
This is another very common pre-trial motion. The police often overstep their bounds when they conduct a search — even with a warrant.
For example, maybe a warrant allowed the police to search a defendant’s home, but the evidence against them was found in a car — which wasn’t listed on the warrant. Maybe the police somehow elicited a confession from a defendant who hadn’t properly received their Miranda warning. Either of those incidents could provoke a motion to exclude.
It can be difficult to keep up with all the twists and turns in a complex criminal case. If you start to feel lost, your defense attorney can help you better understand the process.