If a Victim Chooses Not to Press Charges, Am I in the Clear?

In television shows and movies centered around the practice of criminal law, the victim’s choice of whether to press charges is portrayed as a matter of fundamental significance.  Reality is quite a bit different.  Though the victim’s decision not to press charges could be quite beneficial for a criminal defendant, it is not the end-all-be-all that it is so often construed to be in media portrayals.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Nature of Criminal Litigation and Pressing Charges

It’s important to note that the decision to file charges and prosecute against the defendant is not left to the victim of a crime — it is a decision that lies solely with the State, and more specifically, the prosecutor (who is effectively the State’s agent).  As such, when a victim is not interested in bringing charges against the criminal defendant, that preference may be taken into consideration, particularly where the victim appears to be highly uncooperative.  It is not a controlling factor, however.  The prosecutor is given some discretion as to whether they would like to pursue the case anyway and litigate the charges at-issue.

Why is this the case?

Throughout the United States, criminal law is founded on the same basic premise: the State prosecutes a case against the defendant, because doing so is a reflection of the State litigating on behalf of “the people,” who have a vested interest in investigating, prosecuting, and potentially penalizing criminal defendants.  This dynamic is what minimizes the preferences of the victim — the victim is not the only individual with a vested interest in prosecuting the case against the defendant.

What Happens if the Victim Decides Not to Press Charges?


If the victim decides not to press charges, the prosecutor may not necessarily dismiss the case.  For example, a prosecutor is likely to pursue litigation in domestic violence cases, or in cases where the underlying charges are particularly severe, such as a violent crime involving the use of deadly weapons.  Even if the victim is relatively uncooperative, the prosecutor can subpoena the victim and force them to appear before the court.

Declining to File Charges

Prosecutors may agree with the victim and decline to file charges.  There are a number of factors that can contribute to this decision (beyond the victim’s own preference for not pressing charges).  These factors include:

  • Insufficient evidence (i.e., the case is unlikely to be successful should it go to trial)
  • Civil settlement being negotiated between the victim and defendant directly
  • Defendant committed a minor offense
  • Mediation is a possibility for resolving the minor offense
  • Defendant is a first-time offender with a good reputation
  • There are multiple defendants, and the prosecutor would like the assistance of one defendant in exchange for a promise not to file charges

If you have been accused or charged with the commission of a crime, then you could be facing significant penalties, including a term of imprisonment.  Given the high-stakes nature of criminal litigation, it’s important that you consult a qualified defense attorney so that the legal situation can be evaluated and an effective strategy developed as soon as possible.

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