Can Victims Drop Criminal Charges?

Clients facing criminal charges like domestic violence or assault often come to us hoping they can just “get the charges dropped” and make the situation go away. We understand this impulse. An arrest and criminal prosecution can turn your life upside down. The instinct is to want to make it end as quickly and quietly as possible.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. This is a common question but an oversimplification of how the criminal justice system works.

The decision of whether and what to charge ultimately lies with the prosecuting attorney, not with the victim. While an uncooperative victim can potentially affect or even derail the prosecution’s case, the victim does not have control of the case.

Once charges are filed, the case proceeds at the discretion of the prosecutor. But all hope is not lost. There are strategies a defense attorney can use to protect the accused’s rights and seek the most favorable outcome.

“Pressing Charges” in a Domestic Violence Case

First, it’s important to understand how criminal charges get initiated. Many people use the phrase “pressing charges” casually without realizing what it entails legally.

The truth is that victims don’t actually press charges in the legal sense. The decision of whether and what to charge someone with is made by the prosecuting attorney, not the victim.

Here’s how it typically works:

  • Someone calls 911. The call may be placed by the alleged victim, but it could also be placed by a neighbor, family member, or other witness. The call may be a request for law enforcement, but sometimes, it is a call for medical assistance or some other type of help. Even when the call is a request for law enforcement, often the caller is just reporting a disturbance or wanting help to break up a fight.
  • Law enforcement responds to the scene. The police will gather evidence, including witness statements and photographs. If someone receives medical treatment, law enforcement may also obtain medical records.
  • If law enforcement believes that a crime was committed, they will make an arrest or issue a citation with a court date. In domestic violence situations, law enforcement often has no discretion – even if the alleged victim requests that they not issue charges, most police departments require their officers to do so if they have determined that a domestic assault occurred.
  • A prosecutor then evaluates the evidence and decides if legal grounds exist to pursue criminal charges. If the prosecutor elects to proceed, then the prosecutor files a case in court. Like law enforcement in domestic violence situations, prosecutors often have no discretion in these types of cases. In other words, most prosecutors’ offices have a policy that their prosecutors must issue charges in domestic violence cases if there is probable cause, even if the alleged victim has requested that they not do so.
  • Once the case is filed, the case belongs to the prosecutor, and only the prosecutor can “drop” the charges. And, in this area, every prosecutor’s office has a “no drop policy” on domestic assault cases, meaning that the prosecutor will not dismiss or amend the charges, under any circumstances.

The key takeaway is that once the wheels are in motion, the ultimate decision to prosecute lies with the prosecutor – not with the victim.

Can a Domestic Violence Victim Drop the Charges?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions we get from clients accused of domestic violence or assault in Missouri.

The short answer is no. As we explained, the victim does not personally file or drop criminal charges in the legal system. The defendant has been charged by the state, a county, or a municipality – not by the victim specifically. Instead, the victim is a witness.

That said, victim cooperation, or lack thereof, can significantly influence how the prosecution proceeds. If the victim refuses to testify or participate in the case, it does complicate things for the prosecutors. But it does not automatically force them to drop the charges. Again, in this area, all prosecuting attorney’s offices have a strict “no-drop” policy for these cases.

Prosecutors can and often do continue building a case based on other evidence like 911 call recordings, photographs, hospital records, etc. Additionally, victims can be legally compelled to testify through a subpoena. At that point, they must comply or risk being held in contempt of court.

What If a Victim Recants Their Original Statement?

When a victim contacts the police to report domestic violence or assault, they create evidence by making statements close in time to the actual events.

If they later recant those statements, meaning they withdraw or contradict them, it raises serious questions.

In our experience handling these cases in Missouri courts, there are a few typical outcomes when a victim recants:

  • Prosecutors or law enforcement may dig deeper into the evidence to determine if coercion from the defendant caused the change in story.
  • Prosecutors may obtain the victim’s communications and visitation records with the defendant, looking for signs of intimidation or collusion.
  • The prosecution relies more heavily on other objective evidence, like photographs, medical records, 911 calls, etc., to continue making their case.

The lesson here is that while recanting can certainly impact the prosecution, it does not automatically stop the criminal case in its tracks. Skilled prosecutors will work diligently to investigate the reasons for changed testimony and still build the strongest case possible.

Beyond an Uncooperative Victim: Other Ways Charges Get Dropped

While an uncooperative victim can weaken the prosecution’s domestic violence case, charges may still be dismissed for other reasons, like:

Spousal Privilege

In domestic violence cases involving married partners, the victim may invoke spousal privilege to avoid testifying. This legal right allows a spouse to refuse to testify against their partner unless they’ve waived the privilege. Removing a victim’s testimony can severely damage the prosecution’s case.

Failing to Meet the Burden of Proof

If the alleged victim cannot or will not testify, prosecutors may not be able to meet their burden of proof at trial, depending on the other evidence in the case. To obtain a conviction, prosecutors must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard of proof under the law. However, since prosecutors have a “no drop policy” on domestic assault cases, relying on the burden of proof requires actually going to trial.

On the day of trial, prosecutors may seek a continuance if their key witness is not present, and the court may grant a defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute if the government will not or cannot proceed. Alternatively, the prosecutor may proceed without the alleged victim’s testimony and rely on the evidence the government does have, which may or may not meet the burden of proof.

Lack of Witness Testimony

Domestic violence cases often come down to the testimony of the two involved parties. If neither the victim nor the defendant are willing to testify, prosecutors can be left without critical witness testimony needed to prove their case in court.

Enlisting the Help of Experienced Defense Attorneys

A defense attorney can identify flaws in the prosecution’s case, such as procedural errors, constitutional violations, and insufficient evidence. And only a highly qualified, experienced criminal defense attorney should be trusted to take a domestic assault case to trial.

At Rose Legal Services, our attorneys are here to support you, explain your options, and defend your rights. Contact us today for a consultation to discuss your case.

Author Bio

Scott Rose, an experienced criminal defense lawyer and founder of Rose Legal Services, has been practicing law for over 20 years. He is dedicated to representing clients facing criminal charges and providing legal representation on various cases, including DWI, misdemeanor, and felony cases.

After graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law, he gained valuable experience working for a United States Senator and as a Judicial Law Clerk for the Chief Judge of a United States District Court. Throughout his legal career, W. Scott Rose has committed to providing high-quality legal representation to his clients, earning him a spot in the National Top 100 Trial Lawyers.

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