How to Press Charges: Definition & Statute of Limitations

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Criminal charges are filed by the prosecutor's office, usually after an investigation and recommendation from the police. In this lesson we will learn how the process works, including the application of the statute of limitations.

As Carla drives through the city, she sees that a man lay dead in the street, and the police have another man handcuffed in the back of a squad car. The next day, she hears in the news that the police have a man in custody in connection with the shooting. At her favorite bar that night, Carla gets into it with the bar owner. He says that the police are going to charge him with murder within the next 24 hours, and he's so sure, he'll pay off her $500 bar tab; but if she loses, she owes double.

Carla knows he's got a cousin that's a detective inside the police department, but she takes the bet anyway. The man gets charged with murder an hour after the bet, but Carla confidently walks into the bar the next day and thanks the owner for paying off her bill. Chutzpah? Or does Carla know something?

The answer is in the process of how charges are filed. Yes, the man was charged, but not by the police. The police can't charge someone with a crime no matter how much evidence they have. Only the prosecutor's office can file charges. It may be a technicality, but for Carla, it's true enough for $500 worth of free apple-tinis.

So How are Charges Filed?

Police investigate, arrest and book defendants, but only a prosecutor can press charges.
Clyde Barrow

In the U.S., states divide their cities and counties into judicial districts. The lines are based on population and are used to determine where judicial resources are located. For example, in the rural areas, there might be three counties that form a judicial district and share one courthouse with a few judges and prosecutors. In a single big city in the same state, there might be several districts. Each district has one office of the district attorney and as many assistants as needed. The D.A. position is usually elected, but in some states is appointed.

These district attorneys are given the authority to file charges based on a bill of information (a criminal complaint filed in a criminal court), and they have what's called prosecutorial discretion, meaning they have the power to charge or not charge. However, there is one other way a charge can be filed, and that's through the use of a grand jury.

The Grand Jury

A grand jury is a jury of 16-23 persons who will hear evidence from a prosecutor and decide whether there exists probable cause to send the charges to court. If they decide that there is probable cause, they issue a true bill of indictment. If they don't, then they return a no bill. Usually this means there will be no charges brought, but a prosecutor can get more evidence and try again. Unlike a trial jury, grand juries are sealed. There is no defense attorney, and many times the suspect is unaware that there is a grand jury hearing evidence regarding him or her.

Statute of Limitations

Before any charges are filed, a prosecutor must look at the statute of limitations. If too much time has passed, then there is no legal authority to press charges. The reason for this is one of fairness, as after too much time passes witnesses forget details or move away, evidence often get lost, and it becomes more difficult to make both a case or a defense. For the clock to start running, the defendant must be in the state and living openly. If he or she leaves the state or goes into hiding, then the clock stops until the defendant returns or comes out of hiding. In some states and for some crimes, if the defendant 'rehabilitates' over the time the statute of limitations was running, the court will drop the charges. The lengths of time for the statute of limitations are different for different crimes, and some crimes like murder and child rape have no statute of limitations.

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