A criminal charge is a formal accusation that a crime has been committed, made by a governmental authority, such as a public prosecutor or police. Criminal charges are either misdemeanors or felonies, and both are categorized in degrees.
When a person is facing criminal charges, their cases are generally resolved in one of three ways:
- Going to trial and being proven innocent or guilty
- Entering a plea bargain, which is typically pleading guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence
- Having the charges dismissed
Charges can be dismissed or dropped only by a prosecutor or judge. Dismissed or dropped charges both result in a defendant going free, but they differ in when they are used. A charge can be dismissed only after it has been legally filed, whereas a charge can be dropped before or after it has been filed. For this discussion, the term dismissed will be used.
A person who has been charged with a crime has legal rights from the time they encounter police throughout the investigation, even in felony cases. That means your rights could be violated, or something else could occur that gives your lawyer reason to ask for charges to be dismissed. Or a judge or prosecutor may do so on their own. In either case, there must be solid legal grounds for the dismissal.
There are several types of case dismissals:
- No information/decline to charge: When a prosecutor or state attorney declines to file formal charges.
- Nolle prosse: When a prosecutor or state attorney dismisses the specific case or charge.
- Dispositive motion to suppress: When a judge suppresses evidence that causes a prosecutor not to prove their case.
- Motion to dismiss: When a judge dismisses a case after a motion to dismiss is filed by the defendant’s attorney, even if the prosecutor wishes to proceed.
It is important to note that some cases can be reopened after dismissal. A case that is dismissed with prejudice is one in which a judge determines the case is settled and cannot be reopened in the future. If a judge dismisses a case without prejudice, the prosecutor can reopen the case later if there is new evidence.
Some Causes for Dismissal of Criminal Charges
Following are some circumstances under which a criminal charge could potentially be dismissed.
- No probable cause. Probable cause is the standard that gives authorities reason to obtain a warrant for arresting a suspected criminal or issuing a search warrant. It is also the standard by which grand juries decide criminal indictments. When there is not enough evidence or information to support probable cause, the case can be dismissed.
- Illegal stop. Police must have reasonable suspicion to justify stopping someone in a vehicle. Reasonable suspicion can include driving without a license plate, speeding, disobeying traffic laws, acting on a report by a motorist or other witness, or visibly drinking alcohol. When police do not have this justification or obtained evidence from an illegal stop, a case could potentially be dismissed.
- Illegal search and seizure; Fourth Amendment violations. Police must show probable cause to search a car or property and seize evidence. Legal searches and seizures are made with search warrants issued by a judge, with a few exceptions. When there is no required warrant, a search or seizure could be considered illegal. Note that a person who is pulled over does not need to consent to a search. However, anything illicit that is in plain sight can give police probable cause for a legal search. An exception is if the person had an open warrant for their arrest.
- No Miranda Rights read. When a person is charged with a crime, they have rights, such as the right not to speak and the right to an attorney, called Miranda Rights. These rights must always be read by law enforcement at the time of the arrest.
- Denial of attorney rights. An arrested person has the right to an attorney and the right not to speak without an attorney present. Sometimes these attorney rights are not granted or are forgotten, causing case dismissal.
- Insufficient evidence. There may be weak, incomplete, or false evidence that is just not enough to incriminate the defendant. For example, forensic testing or laboratory analyses may not yield firm evidence, or it is found that a witness lied. There are many ways that insufficient evidence can result in dismissed charges.
- Lost/mishandled evidence. Sometimes the police, laboratories, or other forensic investigators ruin the evidence. It may be tainted, or some other collection or handling problem could occur. Evidence can also sometimes get lost as it is transferred from the crime scene to other parties.
- Illegal evidence. Evidence illegally obtained or maintained by law enforcement could be disqualified from being used against the defendant. The defendant’s lawyer can make a motion to suppress illegal evidence, possibly leading to case dismissal.
- Procedural or clerical errors. Police and prosecutors must follow strict procedures from the time of a person’s arrest through pretrial and trial activities. If the defendant’s rights are violated at any time in the process, or there are critical clerical errors, there could be a case dismissal.
- Witness problems. Sometimes witnesses for the prosecution refuse to talk or do not show up to testify when expected. This could lead to a lack of evidence and case dismissal.
- Victim does not cooperate. A crime victim may feel overwhelmed, scared, or have another reason for not cooperating with proceedings. Sometimes they just change their mind and ask for charges to be dismissed or dropped.
- Lapsed statute of limitations. The statute of limitations is the period a prosecutor has to bring charges against someone. The length of the statute depends on the defense. Similarly, a defendant has a right to a speedy trial. When that does not happen, a case could be dismissed.
- Prosecutor misconduct. There have been instances in which a prosecutor has acted irresponsibly or illegally or has otherwise violated the defendant’s rights to a fair trial. Case dismissal is a possibility in these situations.
- Prosecutor discretion. Prosecutors can dismiss or drop cases for other reasons, such as misdemeanors that may not be worth the time and expense to litigate when there is already a lack of resources.
- Turn state’s evidence. A prosecutor can also ask a defendant to work with them, such as providing information about drug dealers or testifying, in exchange for leniency or case dismissal.
- Double jeopardy. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not allow anyone to be prosecuted twice for substantially the same crime. The defendant’s lawyer may be able to get a case dismissed based on this premise.
What Happens When a Case is Dismissed?
When a criminal case is dismissed, the defendant will not have a conviction on their legal record. However, the charge will stay on their arrest record. A defendant can request expungement to seal the case by filing correct paperwork with the court. This is a crucial step best handled by a lawyer experienced in criminal defense. The result of a successful expungement request is the removal of criminal charges from the defendant’s arrest record.
Monmouth County Criminal Defense Lawyers at Ellis Law Advocate for Defendants’ Rights
Anyone who has been charged with a crime, no matter how minor or significant, has rights under the law. The Monmouth County criminal defense lawyers at Ellis Law will work diligently to uphold these rights. If you have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony, reach out to us today. For a free and confidential consultation, call us at 732-308-0200 or complete our online form. We are located in Freehold, New Jersey, and help clients throughout East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, Monmouth County, Marlboro, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn, New York, and New York City.