When someone is charged with a crime against a victim (such as an assault charge), the victim is an important part of the process, but he or she is not the controlling part of the process. Often, we get calls from people that are charged with a crime, and they say something to the effect of “They want to drop the case, how do they do that?”. It is not that simple. In this blog we will explain why a complaining witness cannot unilaterally drop the charges. Like all our blogs, this is intended for general informational purposes only and not as a substitute for the advice and counsel of a criminal defense attorney.
Criminal cases and civil cases are different
When someone brings an action against someone in a civil proceeding, they do it by means of a civil complaint. In that situation the parties of the case are initiating party and the defendant. Because of this, the initiating party can dismiss the case at any time during the process. If someone changes their mind about moving forward, they always can.
In a criminal action, the person who commences the action sometimes does so by calling the police or otherwise getting the government involved. A criminal case is not Victim versus Defendant, rather it is State versus Defendant. Once the defendant is charged with a crime, the action becomes THE GOVERNMENT versus the defendant. Because of this, only the government can dismiss the action. The complaining witness in that case cannot unilaterally dismiss the action even if they want to drop the case. They can ask the prosecutor to dismiss the charges, but the prosecutor does not have to. In fact, a prosecutor can generally force them to testify against their will.
How criminal matters conclude
Every criminal action ends in either a verdict, a plea, or a dismissal. No civilian has the power to dismiss a case even if that person is the one that is the victim. A case can be dismissed by a prosecutor prior to a court proceeding. When the court proceeding starts it can be dismissed by a prosecutor or a judge. Neither the defense attorney, the defendant, nor any witness has the power to dismiss a case.
If a prosecutor gets a call from the complaining witness saying they want to drop the case, it is completely up to the prosecutor whether to do so. If the prosecutor chooses not to dismiss the case, the best you can hope for is that the testimony given by the victim at trial is favorable to your case.