What Happens When The Victim Does Not Press Charges?

  • Feb 14 2019

Over the holidays, my family watched the classic Chevy Chase movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” It was not the first time I had seen it, but this time I noticed something I never had before. My years of working as a criminal defense attorney made me realize that the film’s ending may give some people unrealistic expectations about what happens when the victim of a crime decides not to press charges.

Towards the end of the movie, when the SWAT team shows up at the Griswold family’s home to arrest Cousin Eddie for kidnapping someone, the police immediately stand down and everyone goes on their merry way after the victim says he is not going to press charges. That is not how things work in the real world.

What Happens In The Real World

In the real world, if the police suspect a crime has occured, they will fully investigate it, and will not hesitate to take suspects into custody, even if the victim makes it clear that he or she does not want to press charges.

From there, the prosecutor or district attorney will decide whether to charge anyone with a crime. What the victim thinks is the appropriate punishment for the alleged perpetrator does factor into the prosecutor’s decision – especially given the recently passed Marsy’s Law. However, the charging decision is completely in the hands of the prosecutor.  

In fact, the victim may even be forced to appear in court and testify even though he or she does not want to press charges. In Florida, if a victim ignores their witness subpoena to testify at trial the government can request the Court issue a “material witness warrant.” This results in the police going out to find and arrest a “victim” that does not want to press charges in order to force the victim to testify in court. This isn’t common practice and usually only happens in the most serious of cases, but it does happen.

Florida vs. John Doe

The government is able to pursue whatever cases it wishes because our justice system views crime as something that is a wrong against society (or the “State” or the “Government” in federal cases), no matter who is actually harmed. This is why criminal cases are called something like The State of Florida vs. John Doe while a civil case with the same parties involved might be recorded as Jane Doe vs. John Doe.

It is the government that is seeking justice in every criminal case, which is why the police do the investigating and the prosecuting attorney trying the case is paid for by the State or Federal government. If the public or a victim is happy that justice is served, the government simply considers that an added bonus.

If no victim meant no case, then murder trials would be a problem since, for obvious reasons, there is no victim to testify. It would be weird if nobody was ever charged for murder because there was no victim around to complain, so the government seeks justice without the victim’s permission. Just like they do in every other criminal case.

Don’t Rely On A Promise About Pressing Charges

If you have been unexpectedly charged with a crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney right away. You cannot rely on assurances from the victim that he or she is not pressing charges and hope that everything will be okay. It is important to hire a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and fight any charges brought against you.

Posted in: Criminal