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In one of my favorite films of all time, 1992's My Cousin Vinny, at the end of the trial when it's abundantly clear the prosecution will lose, at least that's the conclusion the filmmakers want the audience to surmise, Trotter pronounces... "the state would like to dismiss all charges."

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And . . . as per Hollywood, everyone rejoices.

I am fully aware movies are movies and not real life and the film is a pure work of fiction. Since I have no direct connection to anyone in the legal field, I thought I would ask some knowledgeable users about something that's always had me wondering. (Just saw the film again tonight.)

I am aware that an acquittal means one can not be tried for the same crime again (double jeopardy). But a dismissal may not provide such protection. Acquittal meaning the prosecution could not prove the defendant committed the crime, whereas dismissal may allow for retrial.

So, is there a legal basis for Trotter dismissing a case merely because he'll clearly lose? Common sense leans towards thinking this may be "Hollywood fluff" and it could not actually happen at the final stages of a trial so close to jury deliberation. But.. again, I don't really know.

I think this is fluff because if it were actually possible, why wouldn't all prosecutors merely drop charges if they fear they are going to lose, then go build a better case and retry the defendant.

Are the requirement for an actual dismissal more stringent than the film would have the audience believe or in this aspect, is the film pretty close to reality?

(I am referencing U.S. criminal law in general)

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    "dismissal is as if the trial never happened" — that's a false premise. Where did you get it from? Trial does not even need to start for double jeopardy protection to apply in future. All that is needed is the charge i.e. formal start of the prosecution.
    – Greendrake
    Jan 26 at 12:27
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    @greendrake In the United States, at least, that is not correct. Jeopardy attaches when voir dire begins.
    – bdb484
    Jan 26 at 12:30
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    "Acquittal meaning it's been proven the defendant did not commit the crime". An acquittal means the state did not prove that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; the defendant doesn't need to prove their innocence.
    – Lithium
    Jan 26 at 20:32
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    Yes, it’s fiction but My Cousin Vinny is one of the most accurate portrayals of a criminal case in film. Amped up for comedic value of course.
    – Dale M
    Jan 26 at 21:30
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    It should be noted, that the director Jonathan Lynn has a law degree from Cambridge University. I think that helped a lot in its accuracy.
    – Bib
    Jan 27 at 11:51

3 Answers 3

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This is entirely possible in a number of different motions that could have been made. At this point, Vinny had destroyed the Prosecutor's eyewitnesses by showing they had issues that called their testimony into question (The first has a timeline that doesn't line up with events, the second has poor vision and her prescription glasses were not doing their job, and the third had many obstructions blocking his view of the scene). His first witness tears apart the "expert" witness, who was only there to testify that the tires were the same brand (albeit, a popular brand at the time... loads of cars had the same tires).

While it might go by a different name in different jurisdictions, the Prosecutor is allowed to make a motion to dismiss at any point prior to the jury goes to deliberation (as is the Defense; Also they might be able to make motions while the jury is in deliberations).

If properly titled, the Prosecutor should have made a "motion for nolle prosequi" (not prosecuting). This can mean any number of things including the prosecutor no longer believes the evidence can prove the charges OR even that the prosecutor is no longer convinced that those charged committed the crime.

In the "My Cousin Vinny" case, as the jury was seated the case cannot be retried by the State of Alabama at this point.

This is possible because the Prosecutor's duty is to uncover the truth behind a crime, no matter what that truth becomes. In this case, despite his previous beliefs, the prosecutor in My Cousin Vinny, upon realizing he was wrong, admitted it and dropped the charges. Given his backstory of having worked as a defense attorney and making the switch after getting a client off some serious charges (and knowing the client was guilty) shows that he was inherently an honest man and dedicated to finding the truth of the matter (as a government employee, he undoubtedly took a pay cut when he switched to prosecution. Private industry almost always pays way more than a government equivalent). With that in mind, it is expected of prosecutors to be perfectly honest with what evidence they have and make the choices in the case based on that evidence. This comes up in another scene when Mona Lisa Vito explains to Vinny that the prosecutor was required to give Vinny all the files he had on the case... because Vinny, by representing the Defendant, is allowed to examine all evidence against his clients. The only dirty trick he pulled was the stunt where his expert witness was not disclosed and while bad, really it's the judge allowing the witness to testify that would have caused a problem with the trial (his response to Vinny's objection could have created a mistrial on appeal).

To give a real world example, I was charged with driving on a suspended license which I had no idea I was doing at the time. As it turned out, the license was suspended for an unpaid traffic ticket that I had paid in the last minute... essentially the DMV forgot to unsuspend. A quick call fixed that issue but I still had to go to court over the charge. The day of the trial, I show up in the court room and the prosecutor walks over and tells me that they were going to enter a motion of "nolle prosequi" for the charge... essentially dropping it... because the matter was a clerical error on the state's part and not anything I did wrong.

Edit: Additionally had the prosecutor not motioned to dismiss, Vinny certainly could have. In fact there are two points during the trial where Defense attorneys are expected to make these motions. The first is when the Prosecution rests their case. The second is before the jury is given the case to deliberate.

As for why it was called a motion to dismiss in the film, it's likely to due with the fact that the audience would not know what a "motion for nolle prosecui" and it is a type of motion to dismiss.

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    Thanks for the thorough explanation! And you're correct. I'd have no clue what nolle prosecui meant.
    – Scott
    Jan 26 at 19:45
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    It may be worth noting that not only was the case likely unwinnable at that point, and not only was the prosecutor probably convinced of the defendents' innocence, but also two other individuals had already been identified and arrested who were probably the actual culprits.
    – Thom Smith
    Jan 26 at 21:40
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    "there are two points during the trial where Defense attorneys are expected to make these motions" - By "expected" do you mean that it's what always happens (hey, why not try, might get lucky) or do you mean that those are the two appropriate times to ask for a dismissal if they think they have a reasonable chance?
    – Readin
    Jan 27 at 3:16
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    The trigger that forced the prosecution to concede was nothing to do with Vinny "destroying" the case - yes, he was doing well up to that point, but the reason the state conceded was because they caught the real suspects in possession of the murder weapon and getaway vehicle.
    – J...
    Jan 27 at 14:19
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    @TypeIA That line is literally the very next thing the prosecutor says after the sheriff confirmed that the weapon they found in the other suspects' vehicle was a .357 magnum and matched the calibre of bullet used in the murder. The smoking gun was the smoking gun.
    – J...
    Jan 27 at 15:07
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Such dismissals are uncommon, but they are permissible. Rules of criminal procedure vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but they will generally permit the government to dismiss charges when it thinks doing so is in the interests of justice.

For example, Fed. Crim. R. 48(a) says:

The government may, with leave of court, dismiss an indictment, information, or complaint. The government may not dismiss the prosecution during trial without the defendant's consent.

The defendant may or may not wish to consent, because there are two types of dismissals: with prejudice and without prejudice. When a case is dismissed with prejudice, it means that the government may not refile the charges or seek a new trial. If the case is dismissed without prejudice, the government may or may not be able to make another attempt, depending on various circumstances.

It would therefore be quite rare for the defendant to object to a dismissal with prejudice, though he may wish to continue through his trial if the dismissal is without prejudice.

Note also that a prosecutor is not only permitted to seek such a dismissal, he may also be required to do so. Rule 3.8 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct require that a prosecutor "refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause."

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  • Absent any objection, is there any real reason that the plea would need to be more formal than shown in the movie?
    – fectin
    Jan 27 at 0:58
  • Not usually. Some jurisdictions might require it to be in writing, but even then it's probably just going to be a simple form to fill out.
    – bdb484
    Jan 27 at 3:56
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A prosecutor can file a motion to dismiss, and they can file the motion for dismissal with prejudice or without prejudice. With prejudice means that the case can't be filed again (note that if two different jurisdictions, such two states or a state and the federal government, file charges for the same underlying facts, that's not considered the "same case), without prejudice means it can be filed again.

In either case, it's not the prosecution dismissing the charges, it's the prosecution filing a motion to dismiss, with the court (i.e. the judge) making the final decision as to whether to dismiss. The defendant can oppose the motion, but they would have little reason to do so with a motion with prejudice. A motion for dismissal without prejudice would probably be fought quite vigorously by the defense, and it would require the state showing misconduct on the part of the defense perverting the course of justice, such as the defendant bribing jury members.

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