Who Decides Whether Criminal Charges Are Filed?

Movies and TV shows typically depict alleged victims as the ones who press or drop charges in criminal cases. However, that's not necessarily accurate. Although the person injured by the criminal act may have some say in whether the case moves forward, the District Attorney's Office ultimately decides whether to prosecute. The decision is based on the evidence presented in the police report and may be influenced by the alleged victim's wishes. Sometimes, the DA has only a limited amount of time to decide whether to bring charges. If they miss the deadline, the case could be dismissed.

If you have been accused of a crime in Los Angeles, speak with one of our attorneys at Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP about your case. Please call us at (800) 462-7160 or contact us online today.

How a Criminal Case Gets Started

Before the DA can decide whether to pursue criminal charges against a person, law enforcement officials will conduct an investigation. Authorities will gather evidence and speak to witnesses and the alleged victim. This step in the process can take a couple of hours to a couple of months.

The investigation's purpose is to arrest or cite the person accused of committing the crime. Officers can only take action after establishing probable cause for the individual being involved. Probable cause means that a reasonable person would believe that the suspect is the one who carried out the criminal conduct.

Authorities will compile their information about the alleged crime in a report. They hand this report to the DA's office for review.

What the Prosecutor Is Concerned with When Deciding to File Charges

When the DA receives a police report about an alleged crime, they'll look it over to determine whether to proceed with the case. They are looking for whether enough evidence exists to pursue the matter. The DA may apply one of two standards when deciding whether the evidence is sufficient: probable cause or beyond a reasonable doubt.

As mentioned before, probable cause means that a reasonable person, after considering the circumstances, would conclude that a crime occurred and the suspected committed it. This is the standard applied at a preliminary hearing.

Beyond a reasonable doubt is a higher standard than probable cause. It means that, based on the evidence, there is no other reasonable explanation for what happened and who was involved. This is the standard used in a trial to determine whether the defendant is guilty.

The DA decides not only whether the evidence is sufficient but also what charges to file.

The DA's options include the following:

  • Pursue all of the charges the defendant was arrested for.
  • Pursue some of the charges the defendant was arrested for.
  • Pursue additional charges against the defendant.
  • Pursue different charges from what the defendant was arrested for.

In cases where the defendant was accused of a wobbler, the DA will also determine whether to charge the offense as a misdemeanor or felony. The decision will be based on the conduct involved, the defendant's history, and other relevant factors.

After the DA decides that they are going to prosecute the case, they will write up a complaint and submit it to the court.

The Victim's Say in Charges

Criminal matters concern the State and the alleged offender, as an offense usually violates state law. Essentially, the government has been wronged (even though an individual was actually harmed). Thus, the government takes action.

It is not up to the victim whether to proceed with the case. However, their actions could affect the DA's decision. For instance, if the alleged victim says that they do not want to participate, the DA might drop charges because they don't have enough evidence to attempt to obtain a conviction. However, this is unlikely to happen in domestic violence cases because the State is concerned about protecting victims in these matters and may want to be careful about dropping charges if the alleged offender coerced the victim into recanting their story.

The Amount of Time the DA Has to File Charges

In many cases, the DA only has a certain amount of time to commence action against the defendant. Having a deadline for criminal prosecution prevents unfair trials. Evidence and memories can degrade over time, and if the DA pursues a case years after it happened, the defendant could be convicted based on faulty material.

Below are examples of deadlines for prosecuting certain offenses:

  • Crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment:
    • No deadline
  • Crimes punishable by at least 8 years of imprisonment:
    • 6 years after the offense was committed
  • Most felonies:
    • 3 years after the offense was committed
  • Certain sex crimes against minors:
    • Any time before the victim's 40th birthday
  • Most misdemeanors:
    • 1 year

The court could dismiss the case if the DA does not begin it before the statutory limit.

Schedule a Consultation Today

Although the DA might have determined sufficient evidence exists to pursue your case, that doesn't mean a conviction is inevitable. The prosecutor must still prove guilt. Highlighting weaknesses in proof can cast doubt in the judge's or jury's mind. A criminal defense lawyer can help build your case and challenge the allegations against you.

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, we provide legal representation in Los Angeles. Speak with a member of our team by contacting us at (800) 462-7160 today.