But I Don’t Want to Press Charges!

You were involved in a disagreement.  You exchanged words.  Things got a little heated.  The neighbor called the police.  And moments later, you saw blue lights and heard a knock at the door.

The criminal justice process usually begins with an arrest.  A police officer arrives at a scene, believes a crime has occurred, makes an arrest, and then files a police report detailing the officer’s understanding of the events that lead to the arrest.  A prosecutor then reviews that police report to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a case.  If so, a criminal complaint is filed.

While the nature of the charges dictates what happens next (for example, a grand jury may review the evidence for felony offenses), the ultimate decision to go forward with the case rests with the prosecutor.  In practical terms, this means that a victim of a reported crime does not “press” or “drop” charges, and has little say in whether a criminal case goes forward.

Your version of that heated disagreement?  It’s just one piece of evidence.  If you are the alleged victim, you can provide a witness statement and cooperate with the police, which may help build a stronger case for the prosecutor.  But even if you don’t cooperate – even if you claim nothing happened and you wish nobody had ever called the police – your statement is still just one piece of evidence.  If the prosecutor believes there is sufficient other evidence to take the case to trial, the state may still file criminal charges.  Similarly, if you are the alleged victim and you want charges filed, but there is insufficient evidence or the police made a significant error during the investigation, the prosecutor may choose not to proceed with the case.  Although the prosecutor may consider your input, it is not up to the victim to decide whether a criminal case goes forward.

I have had clients charged with violent crimes ask me why the alleged victim’s name is not included in the case title.  Why is it “State vs. John Doe” instead of “Victim vs. John Doe”?  That is because the state, not the alleged victim or any other private citizen, is responsible for pressing criminal charges.

This question frequently arises in domestic violence cases when the victim tells police she wants the charges to be dropped.  The state may well decide that it is in the public’s, and the victim’s, best interests to prosecute, regardless of how the victim may feel.  Even without the victim’s cooperation, and without her testimony, the state may press charges.

As published by the Seacoast Media Group in the Portsmouth Herald on August 12, 2017.