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Filing Charges

How Are Criminal Charges Filed?

A criminal case in California typically begins when the district attorney (prosecution) files charges in court, called a "complaint," which says which crimes a person is charged with. This process is often called "pressing charges." Police officers do not file criminal charges, a common myth.

The prosecutor files a complaint after reviewing a police report describing their information about whether somebody committed a crime. This includes what they observed or heard, witness statements, and any evidence they collected.

The district attorney considers many factors when deciding whether to file formal criminal charges.

The report will often include pictures, videos, transcripts of recorded statements, and lab reports. It will typically say what charges for what crimes they recommend the district attorney should file.

The prosecutor alone decides whether to file charges and, if so, what charges to file. People in the community or alleged victims do not have the authority to file criminal charges against someone, which is another myth, especially in domestic violence cases.

The prosecutor reviews the police report and decides whether to file misdemeanor or felony charges. They can also ask the police to investigate more. The City Attorney's Office typically files misdemeanors, while the District Attorney's Office files felonies.

If somebody is in jail and not charged with a crime, they must be released if the prosecutor doesn't file charges within a deadline, which is generally 48 hours. The prosecutor might file charges later, but someone cannot be kept in jail if they are not charged with a crime.

As noted, the charges filed are called a complaint, which lists the crimes the defendant is accused of committing and when. A defendant has a right to a copy of the complaint, generally provided on their first court date (arraignment), or it can be mailed to them.

Filing Criminal Charges - Quick Facts

  • A common myth is that a crime victim must first "press charges" to face criminal prosecution in California. This is not how the case process works.
  • Victims don't have the legal authority to determine whether charges are formally filed in a criminal case.
  • Prosecuting agencies don't charge people with crimes based solely on what a victim wants them to do.
  • Police officers never file criminal charges against anyone.
  • An arrest is not the same as being "charged" with a crime.
  • The local district attorney is responsible for determining whether the evidence is sufficient to secure a conviction by the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • In deciding whether to file domestic violence cases, a prosecutor has to determine whether the alleged victim is cooperative.
  • Not all apparent criminal acts are prosecuted for many different reasons.
  • Sometimes, there is insufficient evidence to convict an alleged perpetrator, and the prosecutor will decline filing charges, called a "DA reject."
  • Prosecutors are legally obligated to pursue justice without undue influence and protect alleged victims from harm.

What Factors Are Considered by the District Attorney?

The district attorney is responsible for holding perpetrators accountable for their criminal conduct. When determining whether to file (press) formal criminal charges, they consider different factors, such as the following:

  • Any evidence supporting someone's guilt.
  • If the evidence is admissible.
  • The level of harm caused to a victim.
  • The credibility of the victim or witnesses.
  • Whether the alleged crime is routinely enforced.
  • Whether it's a minor or severe crime.

Police reports are a DA's primary source of information because they are typically the most relevant documentation used in deciding whether or not to pursue criminal charges.

Usually, the arresting police officer writes them, and a supervisor approves the report. Law enforcement officers who write the arrest reports are typically first responders.

Police reports have all the incident details, including statements from the victim, witnesses, and even the alleged perpetrator in some cases.

Often, the crucial police report will establish whether the elements of a crime are sufficient and if there is enough credible evidence to support the filing of criminal charges.

What Are the DA's Options?

All the information listed above is ordinarily sufficient to help the district attorney decide whether to file criminal charges formally. Their options include the following:

  • Formally file criminal charges, which is called a "complaint."
  • Reject filing criminal charges, which is called a "DA reject."
  • Divert the case to a non-court alternative, such as a City Attorney's office hearing the Neighborhood Justice Program.

Does an Alleged Victim Have Any Influence?

It should be noted that while the DA is solely responsible for deciding whether to file criminal charges, an alleged crime victim could have some influence on the criminal case filing process.

A common situation is where an alleged crime is reported to law enforcement, but the initial complainant later does not wish to pursue criminal charges against the suspect. This often occurs in domestic violence cases, but it is not that simple.

California Domestic Violence Laws

This scenario is common when the parties involved are family, in a relationship, or friends. Suppose a couple gets into a drunken altercation; one partner might call the police, and the other might be arrested. However, once everyone has calmed down the next day, the person who reported it wants to let it go and move on.

Even though they may want to "drop the charges," it is out of their hands. The criminal case process is already in motion after the report has been made to law enforcement, whether someone was arrested or not.

Police detectives will conduct any necessary follow-up investigation, draft a report, and decide whether to forward it to the City Attorney's or District Attorney's Office for prosecution.

A prosecutor will then examine the case and determine whether to file criminal charges. While the prosecutor should consider the reporting party's preferences, they do not need to follow them.

Thus, if a neighbor calls the police after hearing a domestic dispute, a husband may still be criminally prosecuted even if the wife never wished to pursue the case.

The only person who can dismiss the charges at that point would be the prosecutor or a judge. Even if the alleged victim does not want to be involved in your prosecution, your future and reputation might still be at stake.

Filing Domestic Violence Charges

Simply put, a prosecutor can file charges against someone even when the alleged victim strongly objects, such as in domestic violence cases. However, the victim's wishes can significantly impact the reviewing prosecutor's decision-making process. Consider the following:

  • While victims do not have the legal authority to either file or not file criminal charges, their input to the prosecutors responsible for the filing process could persuade them one way or the other.
  • Suppose there is no chance of a successful domestic violence prosecution. In that case, they will not likely file charges in the first place (DA reject) due to the victim's non-cooperation and non-desire for prosecution.
  • Suppose the prosecutor has other sufficient evidence and does not need the alleged victim to testify to secure a conviction, such as pictures of her injuries. In that case, they will most likely pursue formal charges.

Contact our California criminal defense lawyers to review the details and legal options. District attorneys consider numerous factors when deciding whether to file formal charges. It might be possible to negotiate with the prosecutor to persuade them not to file charges in the first place. Cron, Israels & Stark is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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