Criminal Law Myth #1: You Can Drop the Charges

So Jacki called the cops on her man.  She didn’t mean for him to go to jail, really.  But it was a stressful situation, and this was the best way she could think of to get back at him.  It felt great, and having the cops on her side — having the cops as a weapon — was totally empowering.

But enough’s enough.  He’s been locked up for a couple of weeks, now.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  And it’s really hard for Jacki, what with him being out of work this whole time, and not being around to help with the baby.  And he really didn’t do anything wrong… it’s just that, you know… she wasn’t thinking straight.  And now it’s time for her man to come home.

That should be easy enough.  All she needs to do is drop the charges, right?  She’ll just go over to the DA and say she doesn’t want to pursue the case. 

We imagine that something like this is what’s going on in Jacki’s mind:

drop_charges_fantasy450

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Unfortunately, real life is more like this:

drop_charges_reality450

(Excuse our hasty artwork.  We never were any good at cartooning.)

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Unless you actually practice criminal law, you probably have no idea how common this scenario is.  People get locked up all the time, not because they actually committed a crime, but because their significant other used the cops as a weapon.

What people don’t seem to realize is that the police do not have any discretion.  When you say someone beat you, or threatened to kill you, or whatever, the police must make an arrest.  They have no choice. 

And it’s no good you coming back the next day and trying to undo your terrible mistake.  You’ve set in motion a machine that you are powerless to stop. 

We see these kinds of cases far too often.  Non-criminal domestic disputes become swallowed up by the machine, which chews people up and spits them out — if they’re lucky — with permanent damage.

It’s not just women calling the cops on their men, of course.  It’s often neighbors calling cops on each other, or students making false allegations against a teacher, or any other kind of situation.  And once they’ve called the cops, there are no do-overs.

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Sometimes, it’s a cultural thing.  There really are people out there whose first reaction is to call the cops to solve their problems for them.  They live in a world where literally everything is done for them by the government.  So their first instinct in any situation is to get government involved.  You literally get moms calling the cops on their own kids for not cleaning their room.  Which escalates, when the cops refuse to get involved, to ever more serious accusations until the cops do get involved.  And then the mom calls sobbing, wondering why her baby is in jail.  To which the only rational answer is “because you put him there.”

But usually, it’s simply because the person who called the cops (1) felt comparatively powerless in the relationship, (2) figured calling the cops would be a big equalizer, (3) either didn’t understand what he or she was setting in motion, or didn’t think it through, and (4) over-reacted.

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So please, next time you’re thinking of calling the cops on your significant other:  Try actually thinking, first.  You’ll save yourself, and your loved ones, a lot of grief.

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6 Comments

  1. SK (via Facebook), June 18, 2010:

    You are aware that this will be Exhibit 1 at your confirmation hearing, right?

  2. KC (via Facebook), June 18, 2010:

    Excellent blog Nate. Police used to use discretion but there is a differnt breed of cop out there these days. Unfourtunately, sound minds don’t make headlines…or budgets! Cops aren’t peacemakers anymore, they are trump cards :)

  3. me, February 3, 2011:

    in the second example above, she said to the prosecutor, “but it didnt really happen”. is he required to prosecute her for perjury? or can he use discretion (unlike the police)?

  4. Nathan, February 3, 2011:

    Prosecutors have discretion to charge or not charge anything. They may fail to use their discretion (which counts as an abuse of discretion), but that’s a whole nother topic.

    The prosecutor may simply not believe the woman when she says it didn’t happen. It’s a common enough occurrence for a true allegation to be recanted by a woman who wants to save her relationship, that prosecutors can be inured to the idea that it’s the recantation that’s true.

  5. Andrew, March 21, 2011:

    I feel like I should clear something up:

    This article fails to mention something about the police discretion: the police actually do have discretion. The confusion here, I think, is that many (if not all) states now have laws that completely take away the police’s discretion in cases of domestic abuse/battery/assault. In these cases, an arrest must be made. Elsewhere, the police have their normal discretion.

  6. Reda Kerschner, July 18, 2012:

    Excellent!

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