Who “Presses Charges?”

In many movies and TV shows a character will do something legally wrong but justified in the story (such as using a BB gun to force an amusement park worker to take your family on rides in the otherwise closed park) and get arrested. But rather than have the show or movie go into a stories involving court, the “victim” becomes aware of his or her own misdeeds or the character’s righteousness decides not to “press charges” and the police let the character go.

I have seen this come up in real law more than a few times. In one case, the complaining witness, who was the parent of the defendant, sent a letter to the court saying that the parent wished to drop charges against the son. This is common in domestic violence cases in which one spouse called the police and the other or both were arrested.

Complaining witnesses (also referred to as “victims”) do not have the right or ability to “press” or “drop” charges. Criminal prosecutions are undertaken by government prosecutors. In Connecticut the prosecuting authority is the State’s Attorney’s office. For federal crimes it is the United State’s Attorney’s Office. In other states it may be a District Attorney’s office, municipal/city attorney’s Attorney General, State’s Attorney or any of many other types of state authorities. What they have in common is that they are all government authorities. Criminal cases are not between individuals but the government. State crimes are captioned in Connecticut as State of Connecticut v. “Defendant’s Name.” Prosecutors represent the State, not individuals. Victims of crimes can file civil suits against defendants for monetary or equitable damages but not criminal punishment. For those reasons a complainant cannot drop a criminal charge but can withdraw a civil action.

A complainant/victim can decide to call the police or not, but that is really the extent of direct control over the case (the police of course do not have to be called by the person or by anyone at all to get involved). The police then decide to make an arrest on site or to apply for a warrant. The prosecutor can decide to submit a warrant to a judge. Once an arrest has been made and probable cause found by a judge (either by the signing of the warrant or at arraignment after a warrantless arrest), only a prosecutor can decide to “drop,” or in legal terms nolle (short for nolle prosequi–Latin for “to be unwilling to prosecute”) the charges. A judge can dismiss charges which again is not the decision of the complainant.

Can a complainant refuse to cooperate with the State in its prosecution? Yes and no. A complainant may not be required to give further information to the State or the police but the charges can still pend in court until a nolle, dismissal or conviction. The person can still be compelled to testify at trial. A complainant can certainly tell the police or the prosecuting authority that he or she no longer would like the case prosecuted but does not have the decision-making authority.


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