If you've been charged with one or more criminal offenses in California, it can bring a massive sense of relief to find out that some or all charges have been dropped. Having charges dropped is one of the most desirable outcomes in criminal cases, making it a common strategy for defense attorneys, especially at the beginning of the case.
If a prosecutor decides to drop a charge against you, it means they will no longer pursue the criminal case, it will not proceed to trial, and you will not face any penalties for the alleged crime.
Notably, however, a dropped charge does not always mean that the charge will permanently go away. A prosecutor could decide to reinstate a charge later if they discover new evidence against you.
Simply put, in the criminal justice system, a dropped charge means that the prosecutor handling your case will no longer pursue the case against you. This means there are no more court dates, and you will not face any penalties.
There are several reasons why a prosecutor would decide to drop your criminal charge. One of the most common is that there is insufficient evidence to secure a guilty plea or convince a jury to deliver a guilty verdict. Another includes reliable proof that if they filed charges against you, you could make a self-defense argument successfully.
Perhaps new credible evidence, such as DNA evidence or new witnesses, has cleared you of the alleged charges. Maybe a plea agreement has been reached, including dropping some charges in exchange for a guilty plea. Let's discuss in detail what it means to have your charges dropped and the potential ramifications for you as a defendant.
What Happens to You When Charges Are Dropped?
Charges can be dropped at virtually any point of your case before a verdict is reached--from before charges are officially filed into the trial itself. Typically, however, most dropped charges tend to occur before trial. If a charge against you is dropped:
- Prosecutors will no longer pursue a conviction for the charge against you;
- The case will not proceed to trial, or the trial will not move forward if charges are dropped during trial;
- You will not face penalties for the alleged crime, and
- If you are in custody when the charges are dropped, you will be released.
In addition, thanks to California’s Clean Slate Laws passed in recent years (AB 1076, SB 731), any charges against you that do not result in conviction are immediately sealed from your criminal record, so they will no longer appear in background checks.
What Are the Common Reasons for Dropping Charges?
Prosecutors might decide to drop charges for many reasons. These could include, but are not limited to:
- Insufficient evidence: The prosecutor may determine that there isn't enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Unreliable witnesses: If key witnesses are unavailable or their credibility comes into question, the prosecutor may drop the charges.
- Uncooperative victim: If the alleged victim decides not to cooperate or doesn't wish to press charges, prosecutors may drop the charge, especially if the victim is a crucial witness. This is common in domestic violence cases.
- Exculpatory evidence: New evidence might contradict the prosecution's case or support the defendant's innocence.
- Procedural issues: If there were errors in how the evidence was collected or the defendant's rights were violated during the arrest, the prosecutor might drop the charges to avoid being dismissed by the court.
- Plea agreements: If multiple charges are pending, prosecutors may agree to drop some of the charges as part of a plea bargain. For example, they may drop a more severe charge in exchange for your pleading guilty to a lesser one.
- Resource management: Prosecutors must also consider the cost and time of pursuing a trial. If the case is minor or the evidence is weak, they might decide it's not worth pursuing.
In many domestic violence cases, alleged victims refuse to cooperate even after initially filing a police report and cooperating with the prosecutor.
It's common for victims to recant their story and ask a prosecutor to drop the charges; DAs are all too familiar with this scenario and believe the victim is now lying to cover the alleged abuser. Victims of domestic cannot drop charges, and the prosecutor may still pursue the case even without their cooperation.
All these specific reasons notwithstanding (except for a plea bargain), prosecutors usually drop charges simply because they don't believe they can get a conviction. They don't want to spend taxpayer money on a trial they know they will lose.
What About an Illegal Search?
It might be possible to get charges dropped because of an illegal search. Suppose law enforcement exceeds the bounds of the search warrant, or the warrant itself is too broad in scope.
In that case, your criminal defense lawyer could ask the judge to suppress evidence gathered from the illegal search, forcing a prosecutor to drop the charges.
Police typically need a search warrant to enter and search your home or vehicle. The search warrant must also be specific about what items the police are looking for. They can't legally search without probable cause to believe you committed a crime, and they can find evidence at the location.
Further, suppose police fail to read you your Miranda rights before a custodial interrogation, which means questioning you after the arrest. In that case, the judge can suppress whatever you said, including a confession.
What is the Difference Between Dropped Charges and Dismissed Charges?
While having charges dropped may have the same outcome as having them dismissed, meaning you don't go to trial and are not convicted of a crime, they are slightly different in scope. Specifically, charges are dropped by the prosecution and dismissed by a judge.
- A dropped charge means the prosecution chooses not to proceed with the case against you for any of the reasons mentioned above, along with others.
- A dismissed charge means the judge has decided not to move forward with trying your case. This can be due to several factors, including procedural errors, lack of evidence, or violations of constitutional rights.
Does a Dropped Charge Mean I'm “Off the Hook?”
Not necessarily. A dropped charge does not fall under “double jeopardy” protections because these protections only apply to trials that have gone through to completion.
Prosecutors may be able to refile the charges if additional evidence comes to light. This also differs from having a charge dismissed because the judge can dismiss a charge “with prejudice,” meaning prosecutors cannot re-file based on the same claims or evidence.
Therefore, even if charges are dropped, you must remain vigilant and continue working with your attorney to protect your rights. You should consult our California criminal defense lawyer to review the case details and discuss whether we can get your criminal case dropped. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.
- Who "Presses Charges" in a California Criminal Case?
- Getting Criminal Charges Dropped After an Arrest
- Getting California Criminal Charges Dismissed With No Conviction
- Pros and Cons of Changing Your Domestic Violence Statement
- What Does “Dismissed Without Prejudice” Mean?
- What is Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?
- Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436
- California Penal Code 1524
- California Penal Code 1525
- California Penal Code 1528