Dropping Domestic Violence Charges

Under some circumstances, the individual bringing domestic violence charges may wish to drop those charges. Who has the authority to drop the charges, and their reasons for doing so will usually depend on whether it is a civil or a criminal domestic violence action, and on the specific circumstances of that individual case. A DC domestic violence lawyer can help the defendant navigate a case and anticipate the actions of the alleged victim and the prosecution, whether they choose to drop a case or not.

Civil vs. Criminal Domestic Violence Action

One of the main differences between a civil matter for a civil protection order and a criminal domestic violence action is the party bringing the action. In a civil case, the person seeking protection from another person is called the petitioner. The petitioner brings the case and has the burden of showing that the respondent has committed or has threatened to commit an inter-family offense. An inter-family offense is any criminal offense that is committed against a family member, a roommate, an intimate partner, or an intimate partner that the petitioner and the respondent have in common.

In a criminal domestic violence case, the alleged victim, referred to as the petitioner in the civil action, is not a party to the action. Rather, the government or the prosecutor files the charge and brings the case against the offender or the defendant in the criminal case.

Alleged Victim Requests in a Civil Action

In a civil matter, an alleged victim is requesting an order from the court called a civil protection order that can direct or prohibit the respondent from doing certain things. In general, it is for the petitioner’s protection, but the judge will specify what the respondent can and cannot do.

For example, if a judge grants a petition for civil protection, the judge may order the respondent to refrain from the conduct committed or threatened against the petitioner; to participate in counseling; to avoid any contact with the petitioner; and to vacate a dwelling unit of the petitioner, even if the property is jointly owned. The judge can even award temporary custody or determine visitation rights for minor children of the parties.

Dropping Charges in Civil Action

In a civil case where a petitioner is requesting a civil protection order, the petitioner can drop the case at any time.

Alleged Victim Requests in a Criminal Action

In a criminal domestic violence case where the prosecutor is charging the defendant with a crime, the alleged victim is not a party to the case. In DC, the alleged victim is usually referred to as the complaining witness.

The prosecutor may consider the wishes of the complaining witness, but the prosecutor is the party that makes charging decisions, extends plea offers to the defendant, as well as argues during sentencing if the defendant is found guilty.

Dropping Charges in a Criminal Action

Since the alleged victim or complaining witness is not the party bringing the charges in a criminal case, the complaining witness cannot drop the charges. The prosecutor can take into consideration whether or not the complaining witness wants the case to move forward, but it will not be the sole factor in the prosecutor’s decision.

Depending on the circumstances, if the prosecutor determines there is not enough evidence to prove that the defendant committed the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor can dismiss the case against the defendant.

Compelling Criminal Trial Involvement

If there is a civil action for a civil protection order and a criminal case, the prosecutor can subpoena the alleged victim for trial even if he or she has dropped the petition for the civil protection order.

If the alleged victim fails to appear for trial and has been subpoenaed, the judge could issue an arrest warrant for that person. It is possible that the prosecutor would not subpoena the alleged victim if he or she was unwilling to participate, but that does not mean that the prosecutor will drop the case.

If the prosecutor has enough evidence to prove the case without participation or testimony from the alleged victim, the case will proceed and most likely not be dropped.

Importance of Limiting Contact

If a person has been arrested and charged with a crime, a judge will most likely order the defendant to have no contact and to stay away from the complaining witness. This order is considered to be a condition of release from jail. If the accused does not comply with this order and contacts the complaining witness, the accused will face potential criminal contempt charges for violating a court’s direct order, as well as the revocation of their release from jail.

When a petition is first filed in a civil case for a civil protection order, a judge may issue a temporary protection order if the judge determines that the respondent immediately endangers the safety of the petitioner.

If a temporary protection order is in place and served on the respondent, it is imperative that the respondent does not contact or violate the order in any way. If the respondent violates the order, the respondent could be arrested for the crime of violating a temporary protection order or face criminal contempt sanctions for violating a court’s order.