Why Criminal Defendants NEED to Appear at All Court Proceedings


As a criminal defense attorney, one question often asked by my clients is whether they need to appear at each new court date. My usual answer, of course, is typical of an attorney – it depends. My answer is purposefully vague because, outside of the statutorily required presence of a defendant at certain proceedings, a court generally has wide discretion in whether to require a defendant to appear for routine court matters. However, if the court has not excused a defendant's absence, it would be wise to show up because the consequences for failing to appear can be harsh.

For example, in a recent case, a defendant was convicted for twice missing his probation revocation hearing. In upholding the conviction and sentence, the Missouri Court of Appeals analyzed the applicable criminal statute using principles of statutory interpretation to determine (1) whether failing to appear for a probation revocation hearing was a criminal offense, and (2) if so, what the proper sentence should be.

Noting that the process to revoke probation is a civil matter and under the old version of the statute, a defendant could only be found guilty if he failed to appear on a "criminal matter," the court found that the new statute expressly criminalized the failure to appear for a probation revocation proceeding. The court further held that, in this particular case, the failure to appear could be punished with a suspended three (3) year sentence of imprisonment because the underlying offense for which the defendant was on probation was a felony. According to the court, "[t]he failure to appear for this civil matter is now a crime, the penalty for which is defined by 'the criminal matter for which the person was released' on the probation to be revoked."

While I certainly disagree with a substantial portion of the court's reasoning in this case because it is contrary to the rules of statutory construction, the court's decision remains valid, and under like circumstances, the failure of a defendant to appear at a probation violation hearing could subject him or her to imprisonment for up to four years - a harsh penalty for simply missing a court date.

Nevertheless, the application of law to a particular set of facts is never as straight forward as television commentators and prosecutors would have you believe. Indeed, many times, as my experience has shown, whether because of political correctness or because of hot-button issues, prosecutors will file charges against an individual in spite of the facts. In such situations, the role of a criminal defense lawyer is vital to protecting the rights of individuals against the overreach of government officials. If you, a loved one, or a friend has been charged with failure to appear or for any criminal offense, contact Kevin Whiteley, a St. Louis criminal defense attorney, today.

The case is State v. Seay, Cause No. WD74854 (Mo. Ct. App. filed March 26, 2013)