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In movies, it is often the case that we see police decline to proceed with a case because the victim "refused to press charges". Recently we saw this with the battery of Chris Rock by Will Smith on global TV that the LAPD refused to bring charges on as no complaint was made.

In my jurisdiction (Australia) law enforcement will prosecute offences regardless of the victim's views, based on the evidence available and as a "breach of the peace"

Is it the case that Police in the US are unable to proceed with a charge if a victim declines to "press charges" and if so, how are murder charges or even more pertinently, domestic violence charges, brought to court?

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    Does this answer your question? Is the statement "I/we am/are pressing charges" incorrect? Mar 28 at 13:40
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    @PeteB. Most people I see seem to think Rock's yell and Smith's subsequent behavior rule out a staging. Smith's acting image is pretty vanilla and dropping an F-bomb in that situation isn't really coherent with his normal professional behavior. It's rather quite consistent with someone having a breakdown over various stresses, and Rock just became his outlet. Still, it's not an impossible staging, just really bizarre for it to involve Smith specifically. It's hard to imagine he ever saw that being worthwhile for his career. Mar 28 at 22:36
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    @mcalex That's a bit of a different situation, given there were not millions of witnesses, hundreds of whom were in the room where it happened, along with recorded video from multiple angles, and a confession/apology from Smith later on. Even without Rock's testimony, there's ample evidence to charge Smith if they wanted to. Mar 30 at 18:36
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    The biggest beneficiary of the incident is the Oscars, I wasn't even aware they were happening until I heard about this, and the same goes for every single person I know, which is anecdotal but still says a lot. It would make business sense for them to stage it, its the first thing I thought, it would be the best way to get attention to a dying awards show. 6 months from now nobody will care this happened. Mar 31 at 17:20

5 Answers 5

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Is it the case that Police in the US are unable to proceed with a charge if a victim declines to "press charges" and if so, how are murder charges or even more pertinently, domestic violence charges, brought to court?

First of all, it is prosecutors and not police officers who actually bring criminal charges in the legal systems in the vast majority of U.S. states (although not quite all, minor offenses in Rhode Island, for example, are an exception).

Second, a prosecutor does have the right to bring criminal charges even if the victim or someone affiliated with the victim does not "press charges". Indeed, a prosecutor can almost always bring criminal charges over the objections of a victim, although "victim's rights" protections in some U.S. states require a prosecutor to confer with a victim before doing so.

This said, law enforcement and a prosecutor cannot prosecute a criminal case if they have no knowledge that a crime was committed, so if no one brings a crime to the attention of authorities it is unlikely to be prosecuted. And, law enforcement and prosecutors will defer to the wishes of a victim that charges not be pressed in the legal system against an offender in many kinds of cases (although that discretion is limited in many states in domestic violence cases by statute).

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    There's also the fact that prosecutors do not like to waste the taxpayer's money on cases they can't win (the charitable interpretation) or do not like to lose cases because it may hurt their career (the more likely interpretation), and it is hard to prosecute, say, an assault if you then call the victim to the stand and the victim tells the jury "What assault? I don't know what you are talking about?" Also note that, depending on location and who the particular prosecutor is, that the position is an elected position, and going against a voter's wishes never looks good. Mar 29 at 11:29
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    @JörgWMittag The fact that the prosecutor is an elected official is an important reason that prosecutors go against victim's wishes sometimes, because sometimes the victim is more forgiving of conduct than the general public would be otherwise. In practice, probably the most common crime prosecuted against the victim's wishes is statutory rape.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 29 at 21:31
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In addition to the absolutely correct answer by ohwilleke there is another factor in play here. For many types of crimes, it is hard, perhaps effectively impossible, to successfully prosecute without the cooperation of the victim, particularly the victim's willingness to testify, and to work with the prosecutor.

A victim who is unwilling to sign a complaint is often unwilling to cooperate in the prosecution. Thus prosecutors may exercise prosecutorial discretion and decline to bring or proceed with charges, even though the prosecutor has a clear legal right to do so.

This will not apply in all cases, and it is a judgement call on the part of the prosecutor. But prosecutors in general do not like to lose cases,and weak cases are more often lost.

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    Perhaps worth pointing out that one of the other reasons this makes the prosecution more difficult is because juries have been observed to view a lack of a victim's testimony (assuming one is alive and otherwise available) as a demerit to the prosecution's case, and a boon to the defense. Just one of those human tendencies, apparently. Mar 28 at 22:39
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No, but ...

Australia does not have the concept of "pressing charges" but police and prosecutors have guidelined discretion over whether to bring charges.1

In the guidelines involve answering two questions:

  1. can it be said that there is no reasonable prospect of conviction on the admissible evidence?
  2. is the prosecution in the public interest?

Whether the victim is cooperative or not impacts on both questions.

For question 1, the prosecution is required to consider "whether the prosecution witnesses are available, competent, compellable and reliable" (my emphasis). An unwilling witness may give non-committal answers like "I don't know" or "I can't remember" which don't help the case and fall well short of perjury.

For question 2, the prosecution is required to consider "the victim’s attitude to a prosecution", "the victim’s age, physical health, mental health or cognitive impairment and whether the prosecution may have an adverse physical or emotional impact on the victim", and "the protection of the victim and the victim’s family". A victim that does not want the trial to proceed weighs against prosecution.

However, the consideration of the second question is not the victim's interest, it is the public interest including such things as "the seriousness, or conversely, the triviality, of the offence", "the prevalence of the offence in the community, whether it is of considerable public concern and the need to denounce and deter the offending behaviour", "the accused’s criminal history and background" and "whether the offence occurred while the accused was serving a sentence, on bail or remand." Prosecution (or not) may be in the public interest even if it is not in the victim's interest.

1In Australian jurisdictions the police act as the prosecutor for summary offences with the case being brought by a uniformed officer carrying out the role of "police prosecutor". The Director of Public Prosecutions has the responsibility for pressing the case in indictable offences. Very roughly these correspond to the US distinction between misdemeanours and felonies. A summary offence is one that has a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 2 years and some indictable offences can be tried as summary offences which limits the penalty to that maximum.

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Ultimately, it's the DA's office that decides whether to press charges, but they will generally take the victim's feelings into consideration, especially with low-level offenses, and/or crimes considered more "personal". Some crimes are considered more of society's business than others, with domestic violence being one of the most prominent ones; modern policy towards domestic violence is built around the idea that victims are often reluctant to press charges, and that society has a right to step in regardless. And of course most murder victims don't press charges, yet those are prosecuted.

The Oscars incident did involve any injury, and was a personal scrap (albeit a very public one). Had Rock been slapped by a white person, or Smith slapped a woman, there probably would be more impetus for prosecution regardless of charges not being pressed.

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    Note that the prosecutor is not always a DA, the title varies by jurisdiction, although the duties stay much the same. Federal prosecutors are "United States Attorney; in Michigan the title is or at least used to be just "Prosecuting Attorney". -- This answer doesn't seem to add much to the previous answers. Mar 29 at 5:37
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    Second paragraph, did you mean "did involve" or "did not involve"?
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 30 at 15:26
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Apart from the common sense reason that without the victim helping there may be not enough evidence to prosecute, or the police may not even know about the crime: In some countries there are low-level offenses that are only ever prosecuted if the victim complains. For example, insulting someone in Germany is only prosecuted if the victim complains (even if it happens right in front of police officers witnessing it, so this is not a matter of evidence). (I suppose that in the USA hitting your wife right in front of a police officer would most likely get you prosecuted, no matter whether the wife presses charges).

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    "in the USA hitting your wife right in front of a police officer would most likely get you prosecuted" ha! Mar 29 at 19:23

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