Why Would a Prosecutor or Judge Drop or Dismiss the Criminal Charges You Face?
When a person accused of a crime or other violation of New Jersey’s laws calls or walks into the Law Offices of John J. Zarych, one of their first questions is usually to ask how they can get the charges dropped or dismissed, or get acquitted of their charges. Whether these individuals realize it, they are actually asking about distinct legal processes and concepts. Each of these results, dropped charges, dismissed charges, or acquittals, require different legal strategies.
While these individuals may not always use the precise legal term, what they want should be clear: they want to beat the charges. Whether you face charges for drug possession, sex crimes, or assault, the Atlantic City criminal defense attorneys at The Law Offices of John J. Zarych may be able to fight to get your charges dropped, dismissed, or achieve an acquittal.
What is the Difference Between Dropped Charges, Dismissed Charges, and an Acquittal?
Charges are typically only filed when a prosecutor believes that he has enough evidence to prove the case against you. Prosecutors do not need to believe they have a full, complete case – just that they have probable cause to bring the charges. The prosecutor must make their case to the judge in such a way that the judge believes the case falls in line with the legal definitions of the case. Then, the jury makes a ruling on whether the evidence was strong enough to prove the charges “beyond a reasonable doubt.” At each of these stages, the case could end if there is not enough evidence.
Before a defendant ever gets to the trial phase, the matter must first move through a pre-indictment and indictment process. In the pre-indictment process, the prosecutor will decide whether he or she has enough evidence to move forward with charges and into the indictment process. If the prosecutor believes there is not enough evidence to bring the charges, they should either “drop” the charges entirely or drop the charges and replace them with lower, more appropriate charges. Simply put, if the prosecutor is the one who removes the charges, they are considered “dropped.”
When the case is taken before a judge, the judge may “dismiss” the charges if there is insufficient evidence. The judge makes rulings dealing with the law, not the facts of a case. When looking at a case, a judge determines whether the prosecutor’s accusations legally fit the definition of the crime. Simply put, the judge asks the question “if everything the prosecutor claims is true, would this be a crime?” If the judge thinks the evidence falls short of constituting a crime, then there is no possible way a reasonable jury could declare the defendant guilty. When this happens, the charges should be dismissed. Charges may also be dismissed on a legal basis if there was an abuse of power or an illegal arrest that taints the entire case.
When the case gets to trial, it usually goes before a jury. A jury is the one who can “acquit” a defendant of the charges. The jury decides questions of fact, namely whether the defendant did or did not commit the crime. (In “bench trials,” such as those typically used for DWI cases, the judge takes over questions of fact instead of a jury, but has the same rules and requirements.) The prosecutors must convince the jury that the defendant committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If they meet that burden, the jury should return a “guilty” verdict. If they do not meet that burden, the jury returns a “not guilty” verdict, and the defendant is acquitted of their charges.
Motions to Dismiss and Pleas
A defense attorney may file a “motion to dismiss” at any time during the pre-trial or trial process. Reasons for filing a motion to dismiss the charges may include:
New evidence that exonerates the defendant, e.g. someone else confessed to the crime.
The prosecution has failed to comply with discovery and has not turned over any evidence to the defense.
A prosecutor’s improper intrusion into protected attorney-client communications.
Other serious violations of the defendant’s constitutional rights or serious prosecutorial misconduct.
A judge must review motions to dismiss, and the prosecution may file motions countering the defense’s arguments. A judge ultimately decides whether to grant the motion to dismiss or deny the motion and continue the trial process.
Prosecutors can also offer “plea agreements” or “plea deals” at any point in the process. Prosecutors retain the right to drop charges at any point, even up until the jury makes their verdict. Prosecutors may offer defendants a deal where if they plead guilty to some of the charges, they will drop other charges. Alternatively, prosecutors may offer to allow you to plead to a less serious offense in exchange for dropping a more serious offense. These pleas can be offered at any point in the case, but may not remain open after the trial begins.
Is it Better to Have a Case Dropped, Dismissed, or Acquitted?
Which option is “better” comes down to your perspective on the case. Recall that charges are dropped by the prosecutor, dismissed by a judge, and acquitted by a jury. This means that charges can be dropped very early, but take some time to go before a judge where they can be dismissed, and you must make it all the way through the trial before the charges can be acquitted. The longer your case takes, the more you will spend on attorney’s fees, the more time you will spend in jail before trial, and the longer you will face additional issues, such as bail requirements.
If your charges are dropped by prosecutors, this could happen as early as your first court date. However, if police and prosecutors get more information, they can re-file the charges against you at any point. This means that if police drop charges because they do not have enough evidence, they could always have police research the case further, get more evidence, and re-charge you. There is one exception: if the charges are dropped as part of an agreement, the prosecutors will be bound by that contract, and cannot refile the charges. For instance, many prosecutors will drop minor charges if you agree to take anger management classes, seek counseling, perform community service, or plead guilty to another offense. If they agree to drop the charges in exchange for these things, they cannot come back and re-charge you.
Charges can be dismissed as soon as they go before a judge. This could occur in your preliminary hearing, or as part of the pre-trial process. However, getting to this stage usually means you’ve already hired an attorney and paid them for things like motions to dismiss and other legal advice. While this may be more expensive to get to this stage, the case may also be more secure. Judges may simply dismiss charges, which means they could be refiled if the police gather new evidence against you. This only usually happens if the police and prosecutors are very serious about the charges, and are determined to take you down. For most charges, this will not be an issue and the case will end. Judges may also dismiss a case “with prejudice,” which prevents the prosecution from re-filing it. This typically happens in cases of extreme abuse of power or violations of civil rights but is a permanent dismissal.
Though getting to the acquittal stage takes the most time, effort, and expense, it is also the most secure. Once a jury has been sworn in, your Fifth Amendment protection from Double Jeopardy attaches. This means that any acquittal fully ends the case against you. The government cannot re-file the case, they cannot appeal the acquittal, and they cannot bring substantially similar charges that overlap with the acquitted charges. This is the strongest way for a case to end. Note that an acquittal does not mean that you were “proven innocent” – but rather that the jury could not find you guilty.
Facing Criminal Charges in New Jersey
If you are facing serious criminal charges in New Jersey, you face the potential for heavy fines and long jail or prison sentences. However, legal options are available to have the case against you dropped, dismissed, or to receive a “not guilty” verdict at trial. To schedule a free, confidential initial consultation with our Atlantic City criminal defense lawyers, call the Law Offices of John J. Zarych today at (609) 616-4956, or contact us online.