Witness Testimony

Legal Mythbusters: “Pressing” Charges

Since I began to practice law, I’ve learned that there are many misconceptions about the practice of law, criminal defendants, and the justice system. As a criminal defense attorney, I spend a lot of time debunking these misconceptions, for two major reasons. For one, if you are a Georgia citizen, you could potentially be called to serve as a juror on one of my cases. Informed jurors can critically examine, with less bias, what they are told during a trial. Second, it is also helpful for my clients to understand what goes into a criminal case, what kinds of evidence are admissible and persuasive against them, and how the system works in general. And finally, attitudes of Georgia citizens about criminal justice issues inform the attitudes of the politicians that represent them, and attitudes of the politicians ultimately impact the laws that are passed in our state. Those laws determine how my clients are treated when they come into contact with the system.

On both of these levels, I believe that a well-educated population that understands the realities of the criminal justice system results in more actual justice in our justice system. And ultimately, that is why I do the work that I do. So let’s bust some myths, shall we?

The Myth:  I can’t be charged with a crime if no one is “pressing charges.”

This is false. It is, however, a common belief. In this blog post, I will explain why, but first it is important to understand what it actually means to “press charges.” 

“Pressing charges” (at least as most people understand it) begins when a person, usually a victim, makes an allegation that another person committed a criminal offense. Many times it begins with a 911 call or a police report. The police are supposed to investigate the case and, if they believe that a crime has occurred, will hand it over to the prosecutor in the relevant jurisdiction. The person alleged to have committed the crime may or may not be arrested prior to this point. In Georgia, the prosecutor may be a number of different individuals, depending on the nature of the case. Felony cases go to the District Attorney’s office, and misdemeanors may go to a county solicitor’s office or municipal court. The exact procedures also depend on the seriousness of the case. Be sure to check out my post about Georgia Criminal Court Procedures here for more information. 

If the prosecutor decides to move forward with the case, he or she will usually contact the person who originally made the criminal allegation – the person who “pressed the charges” (although keep reading to find out why this is a bit misleading) – to find out what that person has to say. This will help the prosecutor determine what charges to file and how to proceed with the case. They will also try to find out if the person is likely to be a reliable witness – can they keep their story straight? Do they seem truthful? Do they want to testify?

Sometimes, the person who made the initial accusation no longer wants to proceed with the case once it gets to this stage. That leads us to our second major question:

What happens when the person who “pressed charges” wants to drop them?

The short answer? It depends.

(Pro tip: This is the right answer to almost every legal question).

Sometimes, a witness’s desire to drop charges can result in the dismissal of a criminal case, but it does not have to. Here’s why:

Once an initial police report is filed, it’s really the State, not a victim/witness, who is “pressing charges.” And ultimately, the prosecutor does not represent the victim. They do not have the same relationship with a victim as a criminal defense lawyer does with his/her client. Prosecutors represent the State of Georgia, and it is their job to make sure that they get convictions against people they believe have committed criminal offenses. Many prosecutors’ offices do have victim advocates and it is part of their job to make sure that victims have a voice in court, but they don’t represent the victims and they don’t have to respect their wishes. 

So how does a case proceed if the victim doesn’t want to move forward? In most cases, there is not just one single piece of evidence that acts as the silver bullet that guarantees victory. Instead, a case is proven by the “totality of the circumstances” – all of the facts surrounding a particular situation that help the jury understand the story. Evidence can be “direct,” such as an eyewitness account (although I wrote a blog post about how inaccurate eyewitness accounts can be), a confession, or a weapon. Or evidence can be “circumstantial” – evidence that “suggests a fact by implication or inference.” Read more about direct and circumstantial evidence and what they mean in a criminal trial here

Both kinds of evidence are equally valuable. They are usually both used in combination at trial. When a person tells the prosecutor that they want to drop charges, it can mean that they no longer want to testify at trial. They can still be forced to testify, but there are no guarantees that they will testify in a way that benefits the prosecution’s case. So the prosecutor is forced to rely on other evidence that supports their case. Sometimes that evidence exists and the prosecutor thinks they can prove their case without the witness’ testimony. In that case they might not dismiss the case and instead might proceed with the case. 

If, however, the witness testimony is the strongest piece of evidence and the case is substantially weakened by the lack of a compelling witness statement, the prosecutor may reconsider moving forward. After all, prosecutors, like defense lawyers, like to win their cases. So if they believe their case is falling apart, they will sometimes reduce the charges or dismiss them altogether. 

Other Common Questions About “Pressing Charges”

Q:  Is suing a person the same as pressing charges against them?

A:  No. Suing a person means that you are seeking damages against them in a civil proceeding. Pressing charges means that you are asking the State of Georgia to prosecute the person.

Q:  Do I get money for pressing charges against a person?

A:  Not unless a conviction is obtained and restitution is ordered. Restitution is meant to compensate you for expenses incurred as a result of another person’s criminal actions, and that person can be ordered to pay you for these expenses as part of their sentence. 

Other questions?

If I can answer any other questions you may have about what it means to press charges, give me a call today at 404-403-2665 or get in touch through my website here.

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