Why Are Criminal Charges Dropped or Dismissed?

Some people who are charged with crimes do not ever enter a plea or go to trial. Instead, the charges against them are dismissed by the judge or the prosecutor.

One of the first things that a criminal defense lawyer will do is to evaluate whether there might be grounds for a case to be dismissed. Some of these grounds include the following:

  • Improper charging document or criminal complaint
  • No probable cause for the arrest
  • An unconstitutional stop or search
  • Insufficient evidence that a crime was committed by the defendant
  • Unavailability of an indispensable witness for the prosecution
  • Evidence needed to prove that the defendant committed a crime has been lost

In some instances, cases will be dismissed following a loss at trial when a defendant wins on appeal. In others, the charges are dismissed long before a trial.

At DiCindio Law, we evaluate clients’ criminal cases carefully to determine whether there might be grounds for their charges to be dismissed.

Lack of probable cause for an arrest

Police officers must have probable cause that people have committed crimes before the officers can arrest them. Police officers are not allowed to arrest people because they have inarticulable hunches that they may have committed crimes.

The belief that an officer has must be reasonable and based on facts. For example, if an officer sees a person pulling a gun from his or her waistband, he or she would likely have probable cause for an arrest.

By contrast, if an officer sees someone who the officer thinks looks shifty but who is not doing anything that amounts to a crime, he or she would not have probable cause to arrest that person.

If the officer still arrested the shifty person and subsequently charged him or her with a crime, the charges would likely be dismissed because of the lack of probable cause.

However, if the prosecutor later found other evidence that shows that the person committed the crime, the charges could be re-filed.

Improper charging document

Officers must sign charging documents under oath. State laws dictate the types of information that must be contained in a charging document. If a complaint does not comply with the legal requirements because of a substantial omission or error, the prosecutor is not allowed to fix it to give to the court.

If an officer writes an improper charging document and subsequently becomes unavailable, the charges against the defendant may have to be dismissed.

Police officers are only allowed to stop vehicles or people when they have reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime or traffic violation is being committed. For example, an officer can stop a car if a person is speeding but cannot just randomly stop a car because of a person’s race.

If an officer stops a vehicle or a person when the officer does not have a reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed, the stop is unconstitutional.

Police officers are only allowed to search houses, cars, and people when they have search warrants unless an exception applies. Police can search people without search warrants when the searches are incident to their arrests.

They can also search homes in exigent circumstances such as when they hear screams and violent sounds coming from inside. Officers can also search people when they have reasonable beliefs that the people are carrying deadly weapons.

Finally, police can search homes, cars, or people when they are given consent to do so.

If an officer conducts a warrantless search when none of the exceptions apply, any evidence that the officer uncovers during the search cannot be used against the person who is charged.

If the court rules that a search or stop was illegal and that the evidence is inadmissible, the defense attorney can ask the court to dismiss the case because the prosecution does not have evidence to prove that the defendant committed the crime.

Lack of evidence

To prove a case against a defendant, the prosecutor must be able to present sufficient evidence to the judge or a grand jury to establish probable cause that the defendant committed a crime.

There must be enough evidence to demonstrate a factual and objective basis for believing that a crime was committed by the defendant. If the judge or a grand jury fail to find probable cause, the charges will be dismissed.

Prosecutors may also dismiss cases in which they have very limited evidence on their own.

Unavailable witnesses and lost evidence

Charges may be dismissed when key witnesses are unavailable to testify or when some important physical evidence is lost. This may happen because the prosecutor may be unable to prove that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

If a witness asserts his or her Fifth Amendment rights because testifying might incriminate him or her or if a witness dies or disappears, the prosecutor might not have enough evidence to prove the charges against the defendant.

In some cases, the identification of the defendant as the person who committed the criminal offense is key to the case. When the key witness is unable to identify the defendant, the prosecutor may not have enough remaining evidence to secure a conviction.

When a witness says that he or she is uncertain that the defendant is the person who committed the crime, the prosecutor might decide to dismiss the charges.

Defense attorneys sometimes challenge the method the police used to obtain a witness’s identification of a defendant.

For example, if the police used a photo lineup with six people, and the defendant was the only person depicted who was the race of the person who committed the crime, the judge may find that the lineup was improper and exclude the identification testimony.

Prosecutorial discretion

Prosecutors occasionally agree to dismiss criminal charges when extenuating circumstances exist. For example, a prosecutor might dismiss minor charges when questions exist about the facts of what occurred.

The charges can be dismissed without prejudice, which would allow the prosecutors to refile the charges later within a specific period if new evidence of the defendant’s guilt is discovered.

In rare cases, a prosecutor might agree to dismiss the charges against a defendant when the victim asks him or her to do so. However, victims do not have the power to determine whether a case should move forward.

The state is responsible for pressing charges. However, a prosecutor does have the discretion to determine what a just outcome would be. For example, if a sexual assault victim would undergo severe emotional harm by testifying about what happened to him or her and asks the prosecutor to dismiss the charges against the person who was responsible for the assault, the prosecutor might agree to do so.

Dismissals after successful appeals

When a person loses his or her criminal case at trial, he or she can appeal the verdict. If the appellate court finds that prejudicial error happened in the trial, the verdict may be vacated and the case may then be sent back to the lower court for a new trial.

If the prosecutor believes that he or she will not succeed in a new trial, he or she may dismiss the case rather than trying it again.

Appeals court finds insufficient evidence to support the verdict

In some cases, the appellate court will reverse a jury verdict because the jury did not have sufficient evidence to support the finding of guilt. In most cases, the defense attorney will file a motion asking the judge to enter a judgment of acquittal that the judge denies.

The defense attorney can make this argument again on appeal and may be successful. When that occurs, the appellate court will direct the trial court to enter a judgment of acquittal.

Lack of jurisdiction

Courts must have jurisdiction to hear the cases that are before them. If a court learns that it does not have jurisdiction to hear a particular case, it will dismiss it.

Contact Our Criminal Defense Law Firm in West Chester, PA

If you are facing criminal charges and need legal help, contact the West Chester, PA criminal defense lawyers at DiCindioLaw, LLC to schedule a free initial consultation.

DiCindio Law, LLC

29 S Walnut St
West Chester, PA 19382
(610) 430-3535

***This blog article is made available by the law firm publisher for educational purposes and to provide general information, not to provide specific legal advice. By reading, you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. The above listed information does not include the entire crimes code, annotations, amendments or any recent changes that may be relevant. The information provided is for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal developments. These materials are not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. Please contact DiCindio Law, LLC for a consultation and to discuss what law is relevant to your case. ***