In the North Carolina criminal justice system, all criminal cases are the State of North Carolina versus Defendant, NOT “Victim versus Defendant.” This blog explores why a complaining witness can’t just “drop the charges”.
Our criminal justice system is bogged down by cases where the criminal defendant and the complaining witness are often in a familial/romantic/friendship relationship and the complaining witness no longer wants the defendant prosecuted. This issue is compounded by the fact that North Carolina is one of the last remaining states to allow for private warrants. We discuss private warrants here. This blog will explore what happens when the victim/prosecuting witness no longer wants the criminal charges to move forward.
Who has the power to “drop charges?”
The State of NC is the only entity with power to drop the charges. It does so by dismissing the case if and when it wishes to. Consider the following example.
Criminal defense attorneys see the following types of fact patterns regularly: John and Mary are domestic partners. John cheats on Mary. Mary gets mad. John and Mary get into a huge, blow out fight. Harsh words are exchange, lamps are smashed, threats are made, etc. Mary calls the cops. John is arrested. John and Mary make up six hours later. Mary wants to “drop the charges”.
In this example, John and Mary have gotten the State of North Carolina involved in their personal lives, and the State will not simply step out at this point. It is now North Carolina versus John, and Mary is nothing more than a witness in the state’s case against John. Mary may have some sway over what happens to the charges but is no longer up to her. In fact, it is not even up to the police officers. It is up to the State of North Carolina – meaning the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) who winds up dealing with this case.
The two most important things to consider are 1) can the state prove its case without a complaining witness, and 2) does the state want to use its time and resources prosecuting a case in which the complaining witness does not want the defendant prosecuted?
Can the State prove their case without a complaining witness’s cooperation?
It depends, but not usually. Most of these cases involve a he said/she said dynamic and an investigating or responding officer who was not on the scene at the time. The state cannot effectively make its case and prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt in these cases. In other cases where there are multiple witnesses, the state may be able to make its case against the defendant – it really just depends. Every case is different, and it is best to have a criminal defense lawyer evaluate your case.
Even if the state can prove its case, does the state even want to move forward?
Again, depends. Many times, the answer to this is no, the state will not wish to move forward. The Assistant District Attorney will evaluate your case. He or she will speak to the witnesses, officers, and attorneys involved. The severity and egregiousness of the allegations will factor in. As will the circumstances under which the complaining witness brought forth the charges as well as the circumstances under which he or she wishes to “drop the charges”. If the prosecuting witness wants the “charges dropped”, then the ADA may oftentimes consider dismissing the case. But it is important to note that this is not automatic and will not happen at a time that is convenient for the criminal defendant. It will happen after the defendant comes to court to answer for the charges. We discuss that in greater detail below.
When will the case be dismissed?
The case will typically not be dismissed until the defendant has made at least one or two appearances (assuming that the case will be dismissed at all). This is simply procedural. The ADAs have a very heavy caseload and do not have time to look at their cases before the cases “hit their desk”. This happens at different times for different cases. For example, for misdemeanors charges, the ADA gets typically gets his or her first look on your first trial court date. Sometimes a criminal defense attorney can bring it to the ADA’s attention before your trial court date, but there this will depend on the specific circumstances of your case, and ADAs will not dismiss a case with a victim without first hearing from that victim. For felonies, there will be several court appearances before the ADA gets to the stage of making such a determination. This will not likely happen early on – at all.
If you are facing criminal defense charges, contact a criminal defense lawyer to discuss your options.