When faced with criminal charges, it’s easy to worry that your conviction is a done deal. Moreover, factors like the crime’s severity and the state’s laws may influence this assessment, making prison time and a criminal record real possibilities if you’re convicted.
However, if you’re not one to give in to despair, you’re probably wondering how to get the charges dropped before the court date. The good news is that not all criminal cases make it to court, and your attorney can attempt to get the charges dropped before it gets to that point.
In this article, we’ll discuss how this can be done as well as what happens if you’re unable to get the charges dropped before it goes to trial.
Getting Charges Dropped
You can get charges dropped before a court date by cooperating or striking a deal with the prosecution. Also, the prosecution may drop the case due to extenuating circumstances or a lack of resources.
Why You’d Want to Get the Charges Brought Against You Dropped
The main reason you’d want the charges against you dropped is to avoid a criminal conviction. Being convicted of a crime can derail your life in two ways: lost time due to imprisonment and the stigma of a criminal record when you get out.
Of course, not all crimes warrant a jail sentence. However, if the charges brought against you are for a federal offense, you risk serious punishment if convicted. Also, the negative effects of a conviction don’t end with jail time, as a criminal record can follow you for the rest of your life. For example, if you have a criminal record, you may find it difficult to:
- Rent a home
- Apply for a loan
- Get job-specific licenses
- Get a job
- Own a gun
Charges Dropped Versus Charges Dismissed
Occasionally, you may hear the terms “dismissed” and “dropped” used interchangeably. The lack of distinction between the two terms is understandable, given the defendant goes free in either instance. However, they don’t mean the same thing, and the difference lies in two things:
- Whether the charges have been filed in court
- Who can drop versus who can dismiss charges
Charges can be dropped before or after they’ve been filed, whereas charges can only be dismissed after they’ve been filed. Also, only the prosecutor drops charges, whereas either the prosecutor or the court can dismiss charges.
The distinction is important for two reasons: it determines how to avoid a criminal conviction and who to appeal to when making an attempt.
In other words, your lawyer can cut a deal with the prosecution to drop the charges, which can happen before the prosecution has filed its case against you in court. Alternatively, your attorney or the prosecution can apply to the court to dismiss the charges against you, or the court can dismiss the prosecutor’s charges based on legal technicalities (more below).
Common Reasons Why Charges Get Dropped
While procedures and grounds differ from state to state, some of the most common reasons why charges get dropped include:
Limited Prosecution Resources
District attorneys and prosecutors deal with more cases than they know what to do with, forcing them to allocate the limited time and resources they have to cases they deem a priority. For this reason, they may drop cases involving minor crimes to focus their attention where needed.
Therefore, if you’re charged for committing a minor offense and have no prior record, the prosecutor may drop the charges brought against you. However, for obvious reasons, you can’t expect the prosecutor to drop the charges against you if you committed a serious offense.
Deferred Prosecution Agreement
Occasionally, the prosecution may negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement with the accused person’s attorney, causing the charges to be dropped.
As the name suggests, under a deferred prosecution agreement, the prosecution agrees to defer their charges against the accused later. Until the agreed date arrives, the accused is given a probationary period not exceeding two years, within which they must demonstrate good conduct.
Your lawyer can strike a deal with the prosecuting attorney through a deferred prosecution agreement. If the prosecution is reasonably satisfied with your good conduct, they may drop the charges against you.
Of course, the court gets the final say on whether the deferred prosecution agreement can go ahead. After all, your attorney initiates the process via a Motion for Probation. Also, such agreements don’t apply to all crimes, and some conditions must be met before the agreement can happen. They include:
- The victims of the crime you’re alleged to have committed must be informed and granted the opportunity to be heard on the matter
- You can’t have a prior conviction of a misdemeanor or felony in which you committed a crime by being dishonest for personal gain (the legal term being moral turpitude)
- You can’t have been put on probation before
- The court must determine you won’t commit a similar offense if the agreement were to go ahead
Your lifestyle and the circumstances of the case against you will determine whether the court gives the go-ahead for the deferred prosecution agreement. However, your conduct during the probation period will determine whether the charges are eventually dropped.
A conditional discharge is similar to a deferred prosecution agreement in almost every way, including the requirements that must be satisfied before the court makes the order. However, the main difference is you either plead guilty or the court finds you guilty.
Thankfully, when an attorney reaches a conditional agreement with the prosecution, the fact that the accused pleaded guilty or was found guilty won’t form part of the court’s judgment.
Once again, charges dropped due to a plea deal will only be possible if the prosecution and the accused strike a deal. The difference between this method of charges getting dropped and others is the accused may still be convicted for some offenses.
The idea behind a plea deal is that the prosecution agrees to drop serious charges on a wrap sheet if the accused pleads guilty to the lesser charges instead.
For example, if a prosecutor charges an accused with assault, battery, and attempted murder, they can drop the attempted murder charge if the accused pleads guilty to assault and battery. The accused avoids prosecution for the most heinous crime while the prosecutor extracts a guilty plea.
Finally, the prosecution may drop the charges against the accused if evidence exonerates the accused of the crime they’re alleged to have committed. In such an instance, since the accused didn’t commit the crime, the charges against them can’t stand. They’ve been proven innocent.
Therefore, the prosecution will drop all charges lest an innocent person is convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.
What If I Can’t Get the Charges Dropped Before the Court Date
As mentioned above, your attorney, the prosecution, or the judge can dismiss the charges if the case goes to trial. Therefore, until a jury finds against you and the court convicts, there’s still a chance that the charges may get dismissed. This next section reveals how the judge or the attorneys for either side get charges dismissed.
Dismissal by the Judge
A judge may dismiss a case when faced with the following scenarios:
In criminal cases, the concept of burden of proof reigns supreme. If you’ve ever heard the saying “innocent until proven guilty”, you have a very basic understanding of the burden of proof.
In essence, the prosecution must bear the burden of proving that the defendant (you) is guilty of committing the crimes alleged in the charges. Furthermore, they must do this using evidence.
Therefore, if the prosecution lacks the evidence to prove your guilt, the judge can dismiss the charges against you.
Lack of Probable Cause
Another concept that’s foundational to the US legal system is that of probable cause, which determines the basis for arrests. Essentially, a police officer isn’t allowed to make an arrest based on their gut. Instead, they need something more substantial, like evidence, that gives them a reason to suspect you’re about to, or have, committed a crime.
In other words, they may have to catch you in the act, or the evidence against you has to be so compelling as to be undeniable.
Therefore, if your lawyer can demonstrate to the court that you were arrested without probable cause, the judge can dismiss the charges against you. However, note that this isn’t a “Get Out of Jail” card, as the prosecution can refile the charges at a later date if they find evidence warranting your arrest.
Violations of Fourth Amendment Rights
The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution protects you and your possessions from being unlawfully searched and seized by law enforcement. If evidence obtained illegally is presented in court, it’ll be excluded, being inadmissible in court.
On that basis, the prosecution can drop the charges against you if they find their evidence was obtained illegally. Alternatively, the judge can dismiss the case on these grounds. Therefore, if your attorney is skilled, they may be able to argue that, for example, the police didn’t obtain a warrant before searching your premises, leading to the charges being dropped.
Note that the police don’t need a warrant to search your premises if they have probable cause. For example, they can search your vehicle if you’re caught driving under the influence or enter a building if they hear shots fired.
Issues With Procedure
Law enforcement and criminal prosecutors are legally bound to follow established procedures while arresting, interrogating, or setting up their case against you. For example, interrogating you longer than is allowed or searching you without a warrant. If they fail to comply with these procedures, they risk violating your constitutional rights.
An eagle-eyed attorney may spot issues with the other side’s procedure, using their findings to get the charges dismissed by the judge.
Willingness to Cooperate
If you show a willingness to cooperate with the authorities in a criminal case, your attorney may be able to strike a deal with the prosecutor on your behalf. Depending on the crime’s severity, the deal may result in you getting a lighter sentence or the prosecutor dropping the charges against you.
Dismissal by Defendant’s Attorney
Alternatively, your attorney can move to have the charges against you dismissed using a court document called a Motion. They may move their motion based on the following grounds:
Motion to Dismiss on the Grounds of Self-Defense
Supposing the criminal actions you’re charged with were performed in self-defense, your attorney can file a motion to have the case dismissed on these grounds. By adopting this strategy, your attorney will set you up with an affirmative defense.
An affirmative defense is a way of defending an accusation without denying you committed the act you’re accused of committing. Instead, you’re arguing you were legally justified to take the action, given the circumstances. So even though it looks like you committed a crime, you shouldn’t be liable for an offense as your actions are justifiable within the law.
If, for example, an attacker charged at you with a knife, and in the ensuing struggle, your assailant sustained fatal stab wounds as you tried to protect yourself, your attorney can try to get the case dismissed on grounds of self-defense.
Motion to Dismiss on the Grounds of Speedy Trial
In cases where the prosecution is taking too long to proceed with the trial, your attorney can file a motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds that the prosecution denied you your right to a speedy trial.
For example, in Florida, the criminal procedure rules hold that trials for felonies should start within 175 days, while misdemeanor trials should start within 90 days from when the accused committed the offense.
Motion to Dismiss Due to Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is a legal concept that imposes a time limit for the prosecution to bring charges against an accused person. Usually, the clock starts running from when the accused is alleged to have committed the crime.
Depending on the crime’s gravity, the statute of limitation may range between one and ten years. Of course, it doesn’t apply to every crime. Exempt offenses include:
- Felonies which are considered capital offenses
- Felonies resulting in death
- Felonies punishable with life in prison
- Lying under oath when testifying in a case where a capital felony was committed
- Charges related to human trafficking
- Charges involving sexual battery
Suppose the charges brought against you don’t involve one of the above-listed crimes, and your attorney can argue that the statute of limitations for your offense has elapsed. In that case, they can file a motion dismissing the charges based on the statute of limitations.
Motion to Dismiss on Factual Grounds
Sometimes in civil suits, the plaintiff’s attorney and your attorney may agree on the facts of the case to such an extent that it isn’t necessary to go to trial. In such a scenario, your attorney (or the plaintiff’s attorney) can file a motion requesting the judge decide the case with the facts agreed upon and also to dismiss the case.
So in a scenario where you injure a pedestrian while driving because you swerved out of the way of an incoming vehicle, your attorney may be able to file a motion to dismiss on factual grounds. Since both attorneys agree about what transpired, there won’t be any need to proceed with lengthy litigation.
Dismissal by the Prosecutor
The prosecution may discharge the charges against you due to the following circumstances:
Dismissal Due to Extenuating Circumstances
Extenuating circumstances, like your clean record before an offense and the offense’s severity, may convince a prosecutor to dismiss the charges. Misdemeanor charges for loitering or trespassing are two examples of offenses the prosecutor may move to dismiss, so long as you’re not a repeat offender.
Dismissal Without Prejudice
The prosecutor may apply to the court to dismiss the charges without prejudice. What this entails is they’re allowed a window to refile the charges at a later time. For example, if they need to gather more evidence against you, they may file a motion for dismissal without prejudice.
Dismissal Based on Victim’s Wishes
On the rare occasion that the victim of a crime decides to dismiss the charges, the prosecutor may apply to the judge to have them dismissed. Usually, victims of crimes don’t have any say in whether or not a crime gets prosecuted. However, the prosecutor may use their discretion when deciding what a just determination of a case looks like.
For example, if the prosecutor determines that an assault victim who requested the charges be dropped will suffer long-term trauma if made to testify, they may apply to have the charges dismissed.
Issues With Criminal Complaint
In some rare instances, police officers may make mistakes when preparing a criminal complaint or charge against a defendant. Usually, officers need to sign a document under oath. Additionally, federal and state laws dictate the information that should be included in a charge.
A prosecutor faced with a non-compliant charge can’t alter it by themselves. They’d need the officer who created it to make alterations. If the said officer has retired, died in the course of duty, or can’t be tracked down, the prosecutor would have no choice but to dismiss the charges.
Dismissal by Grand Jury
Finally, courts may seek a grand jury’s help when deciding whether to dismiss charges. If the jury decides the case isn’t strong enough, they may dismiss or “no-bill” them, or the prosecutor may do the dismissing based on the grand jury’s decision. Note that these kinds of dismissals apply to grand jury indictments only.
Can the Charges Be Dropped After I’m Found Guilty?
Conviction isn’t the end, as you can appeal a court decision. If you appeal the sentence successfully, your attorney can get a court order from the appellate court instructing the lower court to dismiss the case after conviction. Alternatively, the appellate court may instruct the lower court to enter a judgment acquitting you of the charges.
Usually, an appellate court finding in your favor may be due to factors like issues with procedure, lack of probable cause, etc. However, an appellate court may dismiss a case and overturn a conviction based on the lower court’s lack of jurisdiction.
Lack of Jurisdiction
Jurisdiction determines whether a court can legally hear a case, and courts derive their jurisdiction from legislators and the Constitution.
Occasionally, a court may overstep its constitutional bounds and hear a case it has no jurisdiction to entertain. Perhaps a state court hears a case that took place on federal property, like a break-in at a federal building. In such a case, the federal appellate court can overturn the conviction.
Note that in this case, you won’t get off scot-free as the overturned conviction means a federal court can retry the case.
What Happens When the Charges Get Dropped?
If the prosecution drops the charges against you, you’ll be free. So the case won’t reach court, and you’ll escape conviction and avoid the stigma of having a criminal record.
It’s absolutely possible for you to get the charges against you dropped before a court date. Usually, your attorney has to strike a deal with the prosecution for this to happen. However, there are instances where the prosecution may drop the charges of their own volition, including for want of time and resources to prosecute your case.
With that said, it’s not the end of the world if the case proceeds to trial, as the charges can still be dismissed by the court or through motions filed by your attorney. And even a guilty verdict can be appealed and overturned if successful.