Pressing Charges

Ralph stood, arms crossed, as his ex-boyfriend broke down in tears.

“I’m so sorry!” Zachary sobbed. “I shouldn’t have stolen your wallet. I shouldn’t have used your cash to buy five hundred bucks’ worth of free weights and protein powder. I shouldn’t have used your credit card to buy plane tickets to Cabo for me and that guy I met at the gym. Please forgive me!”

Not in a forgiving mood, Ralph shook his head. “Too late. I’ve already filed a police report. I bet there’s a warrant out for you.”

Zachary wailed and fell to his knees. “I’m begging you, Ralph! I don’t want to go to jail. Please don’t press charges!”

Ralph just smiled.

Why is Ralph smiling? Because he knows something his cheating, stealing ex does not: it’s too late for what Zachary is asking.

Victims of crime generally have a choice whether to report it. And they can later make some decisions about how cooperative they want to be in aiding the police investigation. But the only one who can decide whether to press charges is the prosecutor.

This rule has two implications. First, even if a victim decides he doesn’t want the perp to go to jail, he can’t stop the prosecutor from bringing charges. And second, if a prosecutor decides for any reason not to bring charges, there’s nothing the victim can do about it. I know you’ve heard otherwise on a zillion TV shows and probably read otherwise in a zillion books. Ignore all that. The power to bring a criminal case belongs exclusively to the prosecutor. Not to victims, not to cops, not to judges.

Why? This goes to something I’ve blogged about before: the CJ system is intended to act on behalf of society as a whole. Not on behalf of victims. And the prosecutor is, essentially, representing society. You can guess this when you look at criminal case names, which often look like People v. Smith or New Jersey v. Jones. The inhabitants of that state as a whole are one of the parties, and they’re represented by the prosecutor. The victim is not a party to the case.

Now, victims do have some options. As I said, it’s often up to the victim whether to report the crime to police. If Ralph never told the police about Zachary’s misdeeds, the prosecutor would probably never have known that Zachary broke the law, and therefore no charges would have been filed. The victim can also decide how fully to cooperate. Technically, the prosecutor could use various legal means  (such as deposition and subpoena) to force Ralph to answer questions and testify in court. But in practice, if the victim is uncooperative, it’s often tough to get a conviction, so prosecutors may drop the case.

Regardless of what happens with the criminal case, Ralph can also choose to bring a civil lawsuit against Zachary. If he wins, Ralph can try to reclaim his monetary losses. But dragging it into court may not be worth it if the dollar amount is small or if attorney fees will eat up most of it. Or if Zachary is a deadbeat and has no way to pay the judgment.

The takeaway for you as a writer? Victims don’t press charges; prosecutors—and only prosecutors—do.

And Ralph needs to have better taste in boyfriends.