By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Associate Professor, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business
Movies and television shows provide us a lot of entertainment when it comes to suspenseful crime drama storytelling. However, they don’t always paint an accurate or truthful picture of the way the criminal justice system really works.
A very common trope in crime drama films and TV shows is the idea that victims of crimes have discretion over whether criminal charges should be pursued against suspects. You’ve seen it repeatedly – an innocent party in a story is assaulted and/or injured by a criminal. After the police show up and make arrests, they commonly ask the victim: “Do you want to press charges?”
This trope is so ubiquitous in fictional crime drama storytelling that you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s how criminal justice functions in the real world. But alas, it’s a far cry from the reality of actual criminal prosecution procedure.
Only Prosecutors Can Decide Whether Charges Are Filed
In fact, there is usually only one person with the power to decide whether charges will be filed and pursued against a suspected criminal – and it isn’t the victim. Instead, the arbiter of those decisions is the prosecutor. Commonly, that person is the district attorney or one of his or her assistants.
To be clear, a minority of states do allow some special forms of criminal complaints to be filed by private persons. But this type of complaint is typically only available for a limited list of minor offenses, and even then, such filings in those states are exceedingly rare.
The prosecutor represents the state, and since criminal charges are almost always brought by the state, it is ultimately up to those prosecutors to determine what charges (if any) are appropriate and how far such cases should be carried forward. Prosecutors also have the power to offer plea deals and negotiate charges if and when the circumstances warrant such tactics.
That said, victims may try to voice their opinions to a prosecutor as to whether they think charges should be filed against a criminal suspect. In fact, prosecutors will commonly confer with victims during these processes out of respect and consideration, especially when there is a pre-existing familial relationship, romantic relationship or friendship between the involved parties.
But prosecutors are in no way required to honor the wishes of victims insofar as prosecution decisions are concerned. In fact, they don’t even have to consider them at all.
Victims Might Believe They Have Leverage in a Case, But They Don’t
Understanding that pressing charges is up to prosecutors is an important concept to understand, because victims who don’t understand prosecutorial procedure often think they have more leverage in the process than they do. For example, a victim who is enraged and bitter after having been assaulted by a criminal might understandably want the “book” to be thrown at their offender and for the criminal suspect to receive the harshest possible treatment under the law. But unfortunately, notwithstanding the passions of such conflicts, victims do not get to make those calls.
Some Victims Try to ‘Walk Back’ Their Accusations
The opposite scenario also occurs quite frequently. For instance, imagine two lovers engaged in a spat. In the heat of the moment, one of them gets angry enough to call the police and report abuse or physical violence, even if only to get the attention of their partner.
But when the cops arrive later, arrest the partner and begin hauling him or her away to jail, the person who made the 911 call to the police might frantically try to walk back their accusations. They might insist that they don’t want to press charges and plead with the cops to let the partner go free. But once the police respond, find evidence of a crime and make a decision to effect an arrest, that is a bell that cannot generally be unrung.
To be clear, nothing in the above paragraph should be misconstrued as an admonition of men or women who call the police to report abuse or domestic violence in a relationship. Violence and abuse genuinely occur in far too many relationships and it is absolutely unacceptable, so victims should bring their concerns to law enforcement immediately. That’s why our police and first responders exist.
But that said, for better or worse it is not necessarily uncommon for parties who call the police in domestic violence situations to later regret their actions after learning that the fallout results in a criminal record for their lover or spouse, and there is nothing that they can do to change that later. Stories with these circumstances are frequently reported by attorneys who represent victims and accused parties throughout the country in places like Florida, Ohio, California, and other states.
Crimes Should Definitely Be Reported, But Victims Should Remember That Prosecutors Have the Ultimate Power in Charging Criminals
So the lesson here is that victims of crime – in any form and by any offender – should embrace the protection of our community laws and our local police officers. Everyone deserves justice and freedom from fear and intimidation, so crimes should be reported immediately when and where victims feel it is appropriate.
However, victims should also remember that once a crime is reported and the police become involved, the decisions about whether to press charges against the accused and how severe those charges should be remain within the sole discretion of the case’s prosecutors. Victims can share their opinions on these choices by prosecutors if they wish, but they should not expect to have any control over the process after law enforcement has been summoned.
The idea that you, as a victim, could decide to press or drop charges against anyone is nothing more than pure Hollywood fiction. And understanding this reality will be helpful in preventing a lot of confusion and/or frustration should you ever be in a situation that warrants calling the cops.