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Location: Indiana, USA.

A home/ranch owner (victim) thinks he is being stolen from. He rigs a lot of his possessions with tracking devices (apple airtags) and puts a lot of cameras on premises.

Some time later his possessions do get stolen, hard to say value but apparently well over $1000.

Victim tracks down the suspect to the suspects house. He calls the cops. The cops arrive. The suspect lets cops into the property. Cops do find the stolen goods. At this point there are multiple police officers on scene. Victim says he will not press charges if suspect admits to the crime (and gives back what was stolen). Suspect admits to crime. Victim does not press charges. Everyone has a nice talk and everyone (including cops) leave the scene. No one gets arrested.

How is this possible? Does the victim not pressing charges even mean anything? Does the victim decide if the person should be prosecuted? Why don't the police arrest the suspect?

A viral video of a similar situation can be found on YouTube. We do not know if the suspect is actually arrested or prosecuted from just this video, but the question stands regardless.

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    In reading the answers, it's helpful to keep in mind that (in US common law jurisdictions), criminal offenses are technically offenses against the state, rather than against the victim. It's one of the key differences between criminal offenses and civil ones. In a criminal cases, the State of Indiana is technically the party which has been wronged, even if they're not the one who has lost property/life.
    – R.M.
    Feb 3 at 18:43

2 Answers 2

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The DA decides

The decision to prosecute a crime is vested in the district attorney (a.k.a. the prosecuting attorney, a public official in charge with bringing criminal cases in court).

The DA can prosecute someone even if the victim doesn't press charges.

It isn't the victim's call.

It isn't law enforcement's call (although the DA will never get to make that decision if neither the victim nor law enforcement tell the DA about it).

Critically, in U.S. law, unlike most countries with "civil law" legal system in Continental Europe and Latin America and much of Asia and Africa, prosecutors don't have a legal duty to prosecute all crimes of which they are aware. Civil law systems sometimes give vetoes over prosecutions of particular kinds of crimes to victims, but the general rule is that a prosecutor must press all charges that can be proved and that the prosecutor has resources sufficient to prosecute. In the U.S., the decision to bring charges or not is in the absolute discretion of the prosecutor.

Also, unless the suspect and the DA reach an express agreement to permanently drop the charges, the DA or a successor to the DA can change their mind at any time until the statute of limitations on the crime expires.

In the example in the question, a DA might initially decide not to bring charges, but then change her mind and bring the charge from this incident and a lot of other ones, when the DA learns that the suspect is operating a full fledged criminal enterprise and not just exercising bad judgment on an isolated basis.

The DA usually honors a victim's wishes

Usually, a DA and law enforcement will honor a victim's wishes, both because it is the harm to the victim that the DA is primarily vindicating, and because a case can be hard to prosecute without the victim's cooperation.

Lots of people are pressing to have scarce law enforcement and DA resources applied to their problems. When someone voluntarily withdraws their request to have the DA and law enforcement use those resources, and no one personally involved is unhappy about that, this is normally seen as a win for everyone, and as a way of empowering victims.

DAs and victims alike are also well aware that a criminal case can have very severe impacts on the life of the criminal defendant and the criminal defendant's family. Sometimes it can literally ruin a person's life. Other times it presents a major bump in the road to someone who was overall getting on the right track but had a lapse of judgment. When deciding whether to bring charges, DAs routinely weigh whether the harm done by breaking the law justifies the consequences of bringing a criminal case against someone from the point of view of society as a whole in the long run.

In this example, the victim got moral vindication, an apology and admission, and presumably, his stuff back. The victim and law enforcement clearly saw this as justice enough if this is really just an isolated incident in a case involving a fairly minor misdemeanor offense.

Exceptions to the general rule

In the unusual case where a DA brings a criminal case notwithstanding the victim wanting to drop the charges a variety of things can motivate that.

Sometimes, for example, in an intrafamily domestic violence or child abuse or elder abuse scenario, the DA may conclude that the victim is asking to drop charges under duress, or figurative "temporary insanity" due to being blinded by love in a way that the victim will later regret.

In a variation on this fact pattern, fraud victims often have lawsuits for compensatory damages against fraudsters that will be harder to collect if the fraudster is in prison and may ask to drop charges for that reason. But the DA may want to bring the criminal fraud case anyway, because it is likely that the future income that will used to pay the current victims from their lawsuit will just come from some new fraud perpetrated against someone else.

Sometimes, a DA presses charges because even though the victim doesn't care, the DA or law enforcement believes that the criminal is a high risk for being a repeat offender. This is especially true in cases where the collateral consequences of a conviction (e.g. disqualification from possessing a firearm) may help to prevent a future crime.

Also, keep in mind that the DA is either an elected official, or a political appointee, or reports to someone who is. Usually, victims who get what they ask for from the DA build up political support. But, sometimes, a criminal case will be popular with the general public to prosecute even if the victim doesn't want that to happen. So, that is another reason that a DA might prosecute a case over the victim's objections.

Conclusion

Still, the basic thing to keep in mind is that prosecutors bringing charges over the objections of the victims are the rare exception, because prosecutors do care about what victims want, and to some extent see victims as proxies for being their clients, even though their true client is the government or the abstract concept of "the People."

Also, victims who don't want to press charges are themselves pretty rare.

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    On the last point, I think a better phrasing here would be that ‘Victims who want to not press charges are pretty rare.’ It’s not especially rare for a victim to not care about pressing charges, especially for minor crimes, it’s pretty rare for them to want charges not to be pressed though. Feb 3 at 14:29
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    Isn't there also some simple resource management involved? The DA's office has a limited number of prosecutors, and if they try to prosecute every crime they become aware of they'll be overloaded. Prioritizing the ones where the victim presses charges just makes common sense.
    – Barmar
    Feb 3 at 15:11
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    @AustinHemmelgarn I think it is not that rare, actually, especially in cases like this of relatively petty theft, there's at least a perception that a trial can be a huge inconvenience to the victim as well. (Do the police need to keep your stuff as evidence? Will you be subpoenaed to testify and have to actually spend time showing up in court? Will a trial cause the thief to actually fight the charges where they might not argue if they had the option to just give your stuff back?) "I don't want to spend any more time on this, I just want my stuff back right now" is a reasonable feeling. Feb 3 at 16:56
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    @user3067860 Not just the inconvenience, in some cases the victim can suffer actual harm if the case was taken to court (e.g.: if the suspect in question was the victim's lover, then testifying might involve admitting to an affair in open court).
    – bta
    Feb 3 at 22:41
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    @Barmar There is. In the civil jurisdictions the answer mentions this is one of the limited reasons that can/must be invoked to not pursue a prosecution, but in the US this is all swept up under the general aegis of "prosecutorial discretion". The courts are usually not concerned with the particular rationale of that discretion, as long as it doesn't violate some law itself (such as being done as racial discrimination, or because a law requires some amount of action for particular cases). But resource availability is one of many things that may factor into said discretion. Feb 4 at 6:45
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The police officers have the option to arrest or not arrest the suspect. The victim cannot require them to do so, or prevent them from doing so. But if the victim says that s/he does not want an arrest made, the police will often comply.

Trying to prosecute a case with a victim who does not want to cooperate can be frustrating and is often unsuccessful. It also does not win votes for the prosecutor. Thus the police are often not inclined to do it unless the matter seems quite serious to them. But they can go ahead if they think fit.

The prosecutor can in any case file charges whether an arrest is made or not.

Thus the authorities decide if an arrest is made or a trial is held, but the victim's voice carries weight in such a case.

If the crime is vary serious, or the accused is also suspected of other crimes, the victim's request not to have an arrest made may not carry so much weight.

Exception: In many US states when the crime reported is "domestic violence" or "spousal assault" the police are required to make an arrest, even if the victim asks them not to. This is because in the past many victims (often women) were pressed by their abusers not to ask for an arrest, leading to a continuing cycle of violence, and also because some police took the abuser's part, or said "oh it's just a marital disagreement" leaving victims effectively helpless.

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  • This is what I was thinking. Although it's not a matter of the courts, the police could simply not arrest the perpetrator at the request of the victim. Sadly, these people could be relatives or something... the victim just wants their belongings back. Feb 3 at 2:03
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    @Aaron Cicali Close, but not quite. Depending on local circumstances, it is likely that the police would make a report to the prosecutor, even if they did not make an arrest. If so, the prosecutor would decide what to do, not the police. Feb 3 at 3:35
  • Interesting... so the police could not make an arrest, but the prosecutor would still be made aware and could still press charges? Could this then result in a bench warrant? Or a court appearance? I was under the impression that at the point the police leave, the matter is over. Feb 3 at 23:21
  • @Aaron Cicali Your impressions is incorrect. Exactly what the police will in practice report to the prosecutor (DA) varies a good deal, and depends on local policies and on the current relationship, formal and informal btwn the police and the DA's office And the DA may have other sources of info. But the DA could, if s/he choose, bring charge, at the court. The DA might ask for an arrest warrant, or have the accused notified to attend court on a given date. There might first be a grand jury indictment, or a preliminary or probable cause hearing. All this is largely up to the DA. Feb 4 at 0:36

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