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Filing Charges

Who Presses Charges in a Criminal Case in California?

A common misconception we have often seen while speaking with potential clients is that the victim of a crime must first “press charges” for them to face criminal prosecution in California.  

This is a myth and not how the criminal case process works. Still, it is understandable because television dramas and movies routinely have scenes where a police detective will ask a victim if they want to “press charges.” 

Who Presses Charges in a Criminal Case in California?
The local District Attorney's Office is solely responsible for filing criminal charges in California.

This is wrong on multiple levels. First, there is no legal term for “pressing charges.” Next, victims don't have the legal authority to determine whether charges are formally filed in a criminal case. 

The local county prosecutor is responsible for determining whether the evidence is sufficient to secure a conviction by the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.

Not all apparent criminal acts are prosecuted for many different reasons. In some cases, there is insufficient evidence to convict the alleged perpetrator. Prosecutors have a legal obligation to pursue justice without undue influence.

They also must protect alleged victims from harm, protect their rights, and hold perpetrators accountable for their criminal conduct.  Our California criminal defense lawyers will review further below. 

What Factors Are Considered by a Prosecutor?

As noted, prosecutors are responsible for holding people accountable for their actions. When determining whether to formally file (“press”) criminal charges, they consider a wide range of factors, such as.

  • evidence that supports guilt;
  • whether the evidence is admissible;
  • credibility of the victim or witnesses, and
  • level of harm caused;
  • whether or not the alleged crime is routinely enforced;
  • whether it's a minor or serious crime;

Further, especially in domestic violence cases, a prosecutor has to determine whether the alleged victim is cooperative.  One of the primary sources of information for a prosecutor is the police reports because they are usually the most relevant documentation used in deciding whether or not to pursue criminal charges. 

The arresting police officer writes them at the scene, and a supervisor usually approves the report. Police officers who write the arrest reports are often first responders. Their reports have all the incident details, including statements from the victim, witnesses, and sometimes the alleged perpetrator.   

Frequently, arrest reports will establish whether the elements of a crime are sufficient and if there is enough credible evidence to support the filing of criminal charges. All these factors listed above are generally sufficient to help a prosecutor determine whether to file charges. Their options include:

  • charges are rejected, called a “DA reject.”
  • diverted to a non-court alternative such as a City Attorney's office hearing the Neighborhood Justice Program or
  • they are formally filed, called a “complaint.” 

Readers should note that prosecuting agencies don't charge or charge people with crimes based on what a victim wants them to do.

Does an Alleged Victim Have Any Input?

All this information above is NOT intended to suggest that an alleged victim of a crime has no input into the criminal case filing process. Instead, it means that a prosecutor can file charges against someone even when the alleged victim strongly objects, such as in domestic violence cases.

The victim's wishes could significantly impact the reviewing prosecutor's decision-making process, such as in the example below. Robert and Gloria get into a verbal altercation that soon escalates into a pushing and shoving match. During mutual combat, Robert hits her in the face, causing a nosebleed and a black eye.  

Gloria calls 911. Robert is arrested after the police arrive and observe her injuries.  Neither party gave police a complete story at the scene because they were too emotional over the incident. 

Weeks later, filing deputy prosecutor reviewed Robert's arrest report that was forwarded to them by police detectives in the domestic violence unit. They now must decide whether to file criminal charges against Robert formally. 

Readers should note that an “arrest” is not the same as being “charged” with a crime. Police do not file charges against anyone. In one scenario, the prosecutor reads a supplemental report by the detective that he called Gloria, and she told him the following:  

  • She wants Robert prosecuted;
  • Robert has attacked her before, but she didn't call the police;  
  • She is afraid for her safety if he stays at home.

In another scenario, the prosecutor gets a letter from Gloria saying the following:

  • She never wanted Robert to be arrested or prosecuted;
  • The incident was a one-time event and exaggerated by police;
  • She has made up with Robert and regrets calling the police;
  • She will not cooperate as a witness if Robert is prosecuted.

While these factors above may all seem made up, they are, in reality, all too common, especially in California domestic violence cases. In both scenarios, the objective physical evidence is precisely the same. While Gloria claims prior incidents in the first scenario, there is no evidence since they went unreported.   

What About Victim Cooperation with Prosecutors?

The reviewing prosecutor can learn from each scenario above Gloria's level of cooperation in testifying in court. In the first scenario, the prosecutor knows that if they file a criminal case, she will likely cooperate and testify when subpoenaed.

This means she will be a crucial witness to obtaining a conviction. In the other scenario, the exact opposite is true.  Prosecutors were informed that Gloria would not cooperate and become a witness.  She has hired a lawyer and will object to being called to testify in court. 

While she does not have the legal authority to either file or not file criminal charges, her input to the prosecutors responsible for the filing process could persuade them one way or the other.

Suppose there is no chance of a successful domestic violence prosecution. In that case, they will not likely file charges in the first place (DA reject), citing her non-cooperation and non-desire for prosecution.

Suppose the prosecutor has other sufficient evidence and does not need Gloria to testify to secure a conviction, such as pictures of her injuries. In that case, they will most likely pursue formal charges.

Contact a Criminal Defense Professional for Help

Contact our criminal defense law firm to review the details and legal options if you or a family member were arrested for a crime.

We need to examine the evidence closely to determine an appropriate strategy. As discussed above, numerous factors are considered by a prosecutor when deciding whether to file formal charges.

It may be possible to negotiate with the District Attorney to persuade them not to file charges in the first place. Perhaps we can arrange for lesser charges or a case dismissal if charges are filed.

Our legal teams are former Los Angeles County prosecutors and know how to determine whether charges are filed. We can ensure that your understanding of the process will enable you to make the best possible decisions in your case to achieve the best possible outcome.

Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. We provide legal representation across the state. You can contact us for a case review by phone or use the contact form.

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