Who Can Dismiss A Criminal Case?
Two blog articles for me in one day! I am on a roll!
Every person since the beginning of time wants their case dismissed. While this is an understandable goal, most people lack the understanding of whether this is a realistic goal, what the procedure is in getting a case dismissed, or who has the power to dismiss a criminal charge.
An actual dismissal prior to trial is rare (don't believe what you see on TV). A very low percentage of cases actually resolve in this manner without going to trial and achieving an acquittal. This is important because often the only option to get the result you want is to take your case all the way to a jury trial. A key reason for this is that only a select few people have the power to dismiss a criminal case and they can only do so under very limited circumstances.
1. The Prosecutor
The most common belief is that the judge has the power to dismiss the case, while this is true in certain situations the court has far less ability to dismiss a criminal case than another party - the prosecutor. This is an important misconception to correct because I often see situations where individuals come into court, admit to the crime and then ask the judge to dismiss the case because it is "not their fault", the circumstances justified their actions, it "really shouldn't be a crime" to do what they did, this is the first time they have broken the law, or they are a "good person" and believe they deserve leniency - The second these people admitted to the crime they dug their own grave. As explained below, a judge does not have the power to dismiss a case under any of these circumstances.
The party with the most discretion to dismiss a criminal case is the prosecuting attorney. The county prosecutor's office, on behalf of the State of Idaho, is the party who determines who should be charged with a crime, what crime should be charged, and is the only party with the power to actually file a criminal complaint. Thus, because the file the criminal case, they have the power to dismiss a criminal case. While the prosecutor actually has the power to dismiss a case under the circumstances that a judge does not (above), this does not make them likely to do so. Much like those who explain their situation and ask the judge to dismiss the case, those who walk into court and tell the prosecutor that the case should be dismissed are unlikely to end up getting the result that they want (and the statements you make can be used against you in the future). The prosecutor has filed the criminal charge because they think you have committed a crime, you are unlikely to convince them to now backpedal and dismiss unless you have an actual legal defense to the crime (aka - you didn't do it). Even if you have a defense, you better have something more that just your story if you expect the case to be dismissed - you are need to be armed to the teeth with overwhelming proof of your innocence if you expect the prosecutor to dismiss the case. While the prosecutor has the burden of proving your case beyond a reasonable doubt if the case goes to trial, you may be held to an equally high standard of proof, or higher, when trying to convince the prosecutor to dismiss your case.
In short - the prosecutor has the most discretion to dismiss a criminal case but this only actually happens in very rare cases.
2. The Judge
As previously explained, a judge does have the power to dismiss a criminal case case. However, it is only in very rare instances where the judge is the "finder of fact" - meaning, unless you are in a bench trial, it is not the judges job to weigh the evidence and determine if you are innocent or guilty. Prior to sentencing, the role of a judge is to enforce the law. Think of the defendant and the prosecutor in a case a competing sports teams, the judge is the referee. The legislature writes the "rule-book" (the law) and as the referee it is the judge's job to enforce those rules - meaning that even if they think it is a bad law, they can not dismiss the case - and it is the lawyers job to argue the facts of the case - meaning that even if the judge thinks the defendant is innocent they can not dismiss the case. The judge only has the power to dismiss a criminal case if proceeding forward would be violation of some legal right or rule. This involves them examining the law on any legal issue brought by the parties and making a determination based upon statutes and prior legal precedent. To summarize (I know this can be a little confusing): a judge will only dismiss a case pursuant to a legal issue, they can not dismiss a case based upon a factual issue.
In fact, even if there is a valid legal issue that could potentially lead to a dismissal, in order to dismiss the judge must also find that the legal issue is "dispositive" - meaning it is decisive. There are many legal issues that are not dispositive, even if the defendant wins the argument. For example, if a judge suppresses the evidence obtained during a search because they determine the search was illegal, this can be either dispositive or not depending on the evidence that is suppressed. If ALL the evidence against the defendant is suppressed due to the search, the legal issue is dispositive because there is no way for the criminal case to continue. However, if only a portion of the evidence is suppressed due to the illegal search, therefor leaving some evidence that could be used to support a conviction, the legal issue is likely not dispositive and the court will not have the power to dismiss the case.
3. The Jury
The last party capable of dismissing a case is a jury. Truthfully this is not actually a dismiss it is an acquittal but in most instances they boil down to the same thing. This requires the case to go to a trial. The jury sits as a trier of fact and it is there job to determine guilt or innocence. They are truthfully the only party that gets the opportunity to examine all the evidence and determine whether there is sufficient proof to find that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
*There are times where a judge may sit as a trier of fact rather than a jury, this is called a bench trial.
I get it, most people don't want to have to go all the way to a trial to present their case. A trial can be stressful and take significant time/energy. Especially when someone knows they are innocent, they want the case dismissed immediately, they want this over with. I often see people become frustrated that they can not just convince someone to have the case disappear. Almost everyone who has ever been charged with a crime is frustrated by the legal process. However, the unfortunate truth is that there is no easy solution, the process is in place to make sure that everyone treated fairly and gets the opportunity to present their side of the story. It is not built to be fast or simple. If you are seeking a dismissal, most of the time you are going to have to present you case at trial.