Written by Avvo Staff

How can I press charges against someone?

Understanding how criminal charges get filed

If someone has committed a crime against you, it’s normal to want to press charges against that person. However, getting criminal charges filed is not quite as simple as filing a civil lawsuit.

Who can press charges?

A criminal case is not like a civil case, in which you can file a lawsuit against the person who wronged you. Instead, the prosecutor’s office files criminal charges. You may influence the decision, but in the end it’s up to the prosecutor.

Getting the process started

In most cases you’ll get a criminal case started by filing a police report. Include as much information about the crime and the person who committed the crime.

The police will investigate and gather as much evidence as possible. If there’s enough evidence, or witnesses to support your story, they’ll have probable cause for an arrest warrant.

Probable cause means the evidence supports two conclusions: A crime occurred. The suspect is the person who committed the crime.

Supporting evidence can include:

  • Physical injuries to you
  • Damage to your property
  • Video recordings of the incident
  • Witness statements

Depending on the situation, the police may also have probable cause to arrest a suspect without a warrant.

The prosecutor’s role in criminal charges

The prosecutor’s office will review the police reports to decide if the evidence warrants filing charges. At this stage there needs to be more than the probable cause for an arrest. The evidence needs to be good enough to make winning at trial likely.

For felonies, the prosecutor may need to take additional steps before pressing charges. Some states require convening a grand jury to indict the suspect. In other states the prosecutor must convince a judge to go to trial.

Your role in criminal charges

Even though you can’t file charges yourself, your cooperation makes it more likely the police and prosecutor can make a strong case against the suspect. This is especially true if your statements are the main evidence against the suspect. Without your cooperation there may not be enough of a case to go to trial. But even with your help, the prosecutor may decide the case isn’t strong enough to press charges. This can be frustrating, but the final decision is the prosecutor’s.

The prosecutor may also move forward with the case even if you decide you don’t want to press charges. In this case, he or she can subpoena you and force you to appear at the trial. If you refuse, you can be held in contempt of court and arrested.

Usually, though, prosecutors don’t like to rely on an uncooperative witness. They prefer to have enough other strong evidence before pursing a case.

Statutes of limitations

Sometimes you may not be sure if you want to file a police report after a crime. That’s your right, but in most cases you have a limited amount of time to make that decision.

Prosecutors must file charges within a certain amount of time—called the statute of limitations—after a crime occurs. The amount of time varies by state and type of crime, but generally ranges from 1 to 5 years. That means you have to file your report early enough to allow the police and prosecutor time to do their jobs.

If you have any questions about pursuing criminal charges or testifying against a suspect, a criminal lawyer in your state can help you understand your rights in your specific case.

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