There tends to be some confusion about the overlap between “dropped charges,” “dismissed charges,” and “acquittal.” While all three are non-conviction outcomes, there are still some critical differences which are important to be aware of. In this blog post, Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson will explain the distinctions between these terms, explore common reasons why judges and prosecutors drop and dismiss charges, and discuss what will happen to your criminal record and the future of the case.
Understanding the Differences Between Dropped and Dismissed Charges
The prosecutor will file criminal charges if he or she believes there is sufficient evidence to potentially obtain a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The question of whether sufficient evidence or “reasonable cause” exists is settled during the preliminary hearing, or “prelim.”
At the preliminary hearing, the judge reviews the evidence upon which the prosecutor would proceed. If there is enough evidence to support probable cause, the case may be allowed to move forward. Alternately, if the evidence is insufficient to serve as a foundation for the case, then in accordance with Rule 5.1(f) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure “the magistrate judge must dismiss the complaint and discharge the defendant.”
The main distinction between dropping charges and dismissing charges lies in how the underlying case is timed. Charges can be dropped at any stage of the case — even before they have actually been filed. While charges may be dropped after or prior to being filed, charges can be dismissed only after being filed.
Why Would a Utah Judge or Prosecutor Drop or Dismiss Criminal Charges?
The victim of a crime may request that charges be dropped, but the authority to drop charges ultimately lies with the Prosecutor’s Office. However, if the prosecutor was building his or her case heavily around the victim, and that victim stops communicating or cooperating, then the prosecutor may essentially be forced to drop the charges. In some cases, criminal charges may also be dropped by the arresting officer.
A judge cannot drop charges but can dismiss them. A prosecutor can potentially drop and dismiss charges, though dismissal is subject to approval by a judge.
There are many different reasons prosecutors and/or judges decide to drop and/or dismiss criminal cases. They will consider factors such as:
- The volume and strength of evidence and information available to build a case.
- Whether the victim requests the charges be dropped. (Once again, the ultimate decision-making power belongs to the prosecutor in this scenario.)
- New witness statements which strongly contradict the original information.
- Scientific analysis which reveals new information, such as DNA test results. On a similar note, post-conviction DNA exonerations have proven hundreds of wrongfully imprisoned “criminals” innocent over the past several decades.
- Whether there are any legal issues with the admissibility of the evidence, such as evidence which was illegally obtained without a warrant.
- Whether the defendant’s constitutional rights have been violated. For example, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the constitutional right to a “speedy trial” and may arise in cases where the defendant is held in custody for an excessive length of time.
Prosecutors will sometimes attempt to use a plea bargain, also known as a plea deal or plea agreement. In a plea bargain, the prosecutor reduces the charges in exchange for the defendant agreeing to plead guilty. Defendants who accept a plea bargain will be convicted of a lesser crime, such as being convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, which means they will also serve a shorter sentence. If multiple crimes were charged, a plea agreement may also drop some charges in exchange for a plea to others, usually resulting in less punishment.
What if I’m Acquitted? Will I Still Receive a Record?
A dismissal is not the same as an acquittal. If you are acquitted, it means that a court was unable to convict you of a crime — not that the charges themselves have been dropped or dismissed. Being acquitted means that you could not be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt;” it does not necessarily mean that the court decided you were innocent – just that there was not enough to prove you were guilty.
This distinction is important because it impacts the way the allegations can be handled in the future. If you are acquitted, you cannot be charged with the same crime a second time, a situation that is called “Double Jeopardy,” and is barred by the Constitution. Of course, you can still be charged with the same type of crime; but you cannot be re-accused of committing the same individual incident. By comparison, charges which have been dismissed can potentially be re-filed at a later date, because they were never actually taken to trial.
Unless you obtain an expungement, both dismissals and acquittals will appear on your criminal record. However, these types of verdicts tend not to have the same damaging effect on housing and employment searches as a record of an actual conviction.
Can I be Charged Again for the Same Crime?
The only time that you certainly cannot be charged with the same crime again is after an acquittal. Once a jury has been selected to try your case, any further dismissal of the charges will be an “acquittal,” and once you are acquitted, the charges cannot come back. If they bring the same charges again, that would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution.
If your criminal conduct involved multiple crimes, but only one went to trial, there is still the possibility of re-charging those other crimes. For instance, if a bank robber steals money and kills a police officer, but is charged and acquitted only of the murder, there is nothing preventing the government from bringing separate charges for the robbery. “Lesser included” offenses also cannot be charged after an acquittal. For example, shooting someone would be an assault, but if they die, then it is murder. If the shooter is acquitted for the murder, he cannot later be charged with the assault.
If you have not gone to trial and been “acquitted” of a crime, there is no guarantee of protection against refiling dismissed or dropped charges. If a charge is dismissed by a judge because there is not enough evidence of probable cause, it could always be refiled if more evidence comes to light. For instance, while a charge might be dismissed at first, police could go back, investigate more, and find more evidence or another witness. Those charges could be refiled. The rule is the same for dropped charges – if they were dropped solely by the police or prosecutors, they could change their mind and file the charges again.
Agreements with Prosecutors
If charges were dropped or dismissed according to an agreement with the prosecuting attorney, and you have not violated the agreement, the government must follow that agreement. For instance, a man is charged with (1) drug possession and (2) possession of drug paraphernalia. He signs an agreement with the prosecutor to plead guilty to the drug charge in exchange for dropping the paraphernalia charge. This means that the government is unable to bring that drug paraphernalia charge so long as the man upholds his end of the bargain and pleads guilty to the drug possession. That does not mean he is safe from any other paraphernalia charges, he is just safe for this incident.
It is important not to make an agreement that might sacrifice some of your rights without first consulting an experienced criminal defense attorney. Some things may, at first, look like a good idea, but end up having hidden results. An experienced Sandy criminal defense attorney can help you fully understand any agreements with prosecutors.
Other agreements with prosecutors may involve:
- Removing charges
- Reducing a sentence you are currently serving
- Recommending certain sentences to the sentencing judge
- Other outcomes
These agreements are often based on cooperation with ongoing investigations. This may involve working with police or testifying in court in exchange for some benefit to you. If you have information that may help police investigations, your attorney may be able to work out an agreement with police and prosecutors that may help you serve less time or avoid conviction.
It is always important if you make an agreement with prosecutors that the agreement is made in writing, and with the help of an attorney. There is no guarantee that police or prosecutors have the same understanding of the agreement that you do. Alternatively, you may think that there was some agreement made, but without having it in writing, you have no guarantee that the police or prosecutors will admit to having an agreement. Sometimes defendants lie and say that an agreement occurred, so a judge might not enforce a claim about an agreement without seeing written proof of the agreement.
Additionally, any agreement made with the prosecution should be knowing and voluntary. If you were forced into making a plea agreement, you should hire a lawyer who can help you undo the plea. Similarly, if you entered into an agreement without understanding what you were giving up, it is important to have a lawyer who can help you get out of the agreement.
Plea Abeyance Agreement
In Utah, one other way a charge can be dropped is through a “plea abeyance” agreement. In this situation, depending on the charges you are facing, you may be able to agree to complete certain requirements in order to have the charges against you dropped. Usually, the requirements involve rehabilitation and other efforts to prevent further crime. If you complete your requirements, the charges against you are dropped and the government usually agrees not to file them again. Failure to complete the agreement results in an automatic guilty plea to the charges. You can learn more about plea abeyances here, or contact Overson Law to find an attorney who can help you with your charges.