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A law enforcement officer asking the victim of a crime whether he or she wants to "press charges" is familiar to most people from depictions in cop shows or television dramas.
While victims have the power to report crimes to law enforcement and provide details of crimes to officers and prosecutors, they do not have the power to mandate that a suspect is charged in a criminal case. Even in the event a criminal is arrested, whether or not that person is ultimately prosecuted for the crimes he or she may have been accused of is typically at the discretion of prosecutors, who may choose to pursue the case or decide against it.
So what does it mean to "press charges" after a crime occurs?
Charges May Result From Arrest, Police Report
What is generally referred to as "pressing charges" in a criminal case most amounts to reporting a crime to law enforcement and contributing to a police report following the arrest of a person suspected of a crime. As part of their reports, police may also take statements from victims to gather evidence for a grand jury indictment.
A police report typically summarizes the facts surrounding an alleged crime, such as the dates, time, location, and details of the crime provided by victims or witnesses. Any related police reports will ultimately be used by prosecutors in deciding whether or not to pursue criminal charges.
Other Factors Affecting Decision to Prosecute
However, the police report is only one of the factors that contribute to a prosecutor's decision whether or not to press criminal charges. In addition to political pressures, office policies, or personal notions of justice, a prosecutor's decision may also be affected by the likelihood of conviction presented by certain types of crime.
A 2013 editorial in The New York Times alleged that prosecutors rarely prosecuted drivers in car-versus-bike accidents, citing the difficulty faced by prosecutors in winning convictions in cases where the jurors identified with drivers. In those cases, as in many other types of criminal cases, victims may also file a civil lawsuit against a criminal suspect, regardless of whether criminal charges were filed or a conviction was obtained.
Learn more about criminal charges and criminal court proceedings at FindLaw's Learn About the Law section on Criminal Law Basics.