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Pressing Criminal Charges: What Is It and Who Does It?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

We hear the phrase "pressing charges" a lot in movies and on TV. After a while, you kind of get the feeling you know what it means. But many people have the false impressing that anyone can press charges.

Individuals do not press charges, nor do police. In the context of the criminal law, only a municipal, state, or federal attorney can decide to charge someone with a crime and file a charging document. Prosecutors decide whether or not to do so based on evidence provided by people and police, but the latter two never press charges.

Clearing up the Confusion

So where does the confusion come from? Why do people on TV talk about pressing charges?

Individuals can choose to provide evidence and cooperate with the government on a case. If the cooperating individual is a victim of a crime, and that person wants the perpetrator prosecuted, then that individual can be said to be pressing charges in a manner of speaking.

But only in a manner of speaking. Technically, legally, as far as criminal procedure is concerned,it is the prosecuting attorney who is pressing charges.

Similarly, when a victim does not want to participate in a prosecution, they may say they don't want to press charges. But it is not up to them to decide. Prosecutors do charge people with crimes even when the victim does not cooperate in the effort.

The decision whether or not to "press charges" belongs to the prosecution alone.
Prosecutors determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed and that a conviction can be obtained.

How Charges Get Filed

Typically, if you are the victim of a crime, you or someone calls the police, who report to the scene and record information about what happened. Police reports are then turned over to the office of the local state or district attorney and a lawyer is assigned to the case. That prosecuting lawyer reviews the police reports, including victim and witness statements, to decide whether charges should be filed.

Sometimes victims want charges filed but there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution, or perhaps a problem with police procedure that prevents it. And as noted above, the opposite can also happen -- a victim may want no charges filed and find themselves forced by the state to participate in a prosecution against their wishes.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you are charged with a crime, get help. Speak to a criminal defense attorney. Whether or not the victim is cooperating, having a lawyer on the case as early as possible is best so counsel can start negotiating to get the charges dropped.

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