Acts of sexual violence are considered crimes in Missouri. This means that while a history of sexual abuse may have implications on civil legal issues, you may also be able to “press charges” in criminal court.
What is the difference between civil and criminal court?
Civil court encompasses anything involving money or specific actions. Family court and personal injury lawsuits are two very common areas within the realm of civil court. In civil court, there is no jail time or prison sentences.
What does it mean to “press charges?”
Generally speaking, the term “pressing charges” refers to initiating a criminal investigation against someone for an alleged crime. This means that you bring an incident to the attention of police and prosecutors to see if it is something that warrants opening a case in criminal court.
How to Press Charges
If you decide that you want to report an incident of sexual abuse and hold the perpetrator criminally liable, you should follow these steps:
- File a Police Report. The first step to filing criminal charges is filing a police report. This brings the incident to the attention of police and other law enforcement. When filing a police report, you should go to a police station in the county where the incident occurred. You will be asked for a lot of detailed information, some of which you may not have memorized. It is generally helpful for survivors to write a detailed account of the incident and gather all information they have on the perpetrator before going to the police station. For sexual abuse against children, reports made to the child abuse hotline may be referred to the police for investigation and a specialized forensic interview that is more child friendly. This has the same impact on the process as voluntarily filing a police report.
- Cooperate with Investigators. After filing a police report, a detective from the jurisdiction where the crime occurred will investigate the claims you made and collect as much evidence as possible. This may include talking with the alleged perpetrator and any witnesses to get their side(s) of the story. Investigators from the police department may contact you for more information or to clarify allegations in your initial report. You should cooperate with their requests and consult a lawyer if you feel uncertain about answering questions or providing specific information.
- Be Patient. After the detective has collected all the evidence they can find, they pass it all on to a prosecutor to evaluate. Sometimes the prosecutors ask the detectives to investigate further. This process may be swift or it may take a while, during which time you may not hear anything from the investigators. It is important for you to be patient while law enforcement collects all the evidence they can find.
- Trust the Prosecutors. By the time your case gets to a prosecutor, they are not necessarily looking for whether or not your story is true. At that point in the process, they are looking at the evidence and making an objective decision about whether they have enough admissible evidence to charge the perpetrator with a crime. This has little to do with the actual truth and more to do with what they can accomplish given the rules of evidence and other confines of the law. If the prosecutor feels there is not enough to arrest the perpetrator and file criminal charges, that does not mean you cannot file another police report if more evidence pops up later. Remember, even if your case is not prosecuted, that does not mean the abuse did not happen.
- Participate in Criminal Prosecution. If your case does proceed to criminal prosecution, then you will be working with the prosecutor’s office as their key witness. In a criminal case, the state is filing charges against the perpetrator. In that process, your role is to tell your story and provide information that helps prove the alleged perpetrator is a threat to society at large. This may include doing things such as interviews, depositions, medical and/or mental health exams, and/or testifying in court at trial. Children who experience sexual abuse are generally expected to participate in the same capacity as adults. The process of criminal prosecution may take months or even years. If the alleged perpetrator is a juvenile and is being held in juvenile detention then the case may be expedited.
What if I change my mind about pressing charges?
At any point in the process, you can change your mind and tell the investigator and/or prosecutor that you do not want to proceed with your case. In some jurisdictions, law enforcement will choose not to proceed with the case if you do not want them to. Once you file a police report, though, law enforcement does have the authority to proceed without you. Remember, in the criminal justice process, the state is working to alleviate a threat to public safety. This means that you are a key witness to the case, but the prosecutor is not your lawyer and therefore is not required to do as you wish.
Do I have the right to an attorney?
You always have the right to consult with a lawyer about your options. When you go to court on a criminal case, you may have an attorney present. However, it is important to remember that your attorney cannot speak for you in court. A lawyer can advise you about your best interests and keep you informed about the process, but because you are not a formal party to the case (remember, you are there as a witness for the prosecution), your attorney cannot argue in open court on your behalf.
Do you need help with the criminal justice system?
We at Jane Doe are happy to coach you through the process of navigating the criminal justice system. You can register for a coaching session with a lawyer at Jane Doe for help with any of the following:
- Answering your questions about the legal process and the criminal justice system overall
- Discussing the components of a police report and organizing your information so that you are prepared to make the report.
- Practicing mock interviews, depositions, and/or trial testimony so that you have an idea what to expect
- Discussing options for having an attorney present during your interviews, depositions, and/or trial.
- Identifying long-term legal issues that may result from your situation.
Please Note: More direct legal representation is available for children. To learn more, please visit the section on Child Advocacy.
Want to talk to someone first?
We are happy to offer you a no-charge phone intake to make sure we can help you reach your goals before registering for your coaching session. To do this, call our office at 314-329-5339 between 9am-7pm CT, Monday-Friday. If you would prefer to schedule a safe time to talk with a lawyer, please click the link below.