Dismissing Criminal Charges

Hearing that your criminal charges are being dismissed can be exciting. But, that is not the end of the story. There is more you should know. Criminal charges can be dismissed in different ways and each form of dismissal carries different legal consequences. While dismissal is often a primary goal in criminal defense, the type of dismissal granted by the court is as important as obtaining the dismissal itself.

Dismissal of criminal charges is governed by Rule 48 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure. Rule 48 tells us that either the State (the prosecutor) or a court may dismiss charges. The State may terminate a prosecution by filing a dismissal of the charges. A court may dismiss charges if the State unnecessarily delays in bringing a defendant to trial or in presenting to a grand jury a charge against a defendant who has been held to answer to the trial court. Let us look at the specific types of dismissal discussed in Rule 48.

1) Dismissal – The State or the defendant may request dismissal. The defendant may ask for dismissal on various grounds, including expiration of the relevant statute of limitations for prosecution, violation of the defendant’s right to a speedy trial, and the prohibition against double jeopardy. In practice, however, dismissal of charges usually occurs as a result of agreement with the prosecution as part of settlement through the plea bargaining process. For example, the State may agree to dismiss certain charges if the defendant admits guilt to other charges.

Dismissal may also be conditioned upon the defendant paying restitution to an alleged victim. A court’s order of dismissal may also specify whether the defendant or the State must pay the court costs associated with the case. Again, allocation of costs may be an important component of a settlement agreement arrived at through plea bargaining.

Certain legal terms become crucial in a dismissal. Some dismissals are “with prejudice” and some are “without prejudice.” The State may not again prosecute a charge that has been dismissed by the court “with prejudice” while a case that has been dismissed “without prejudice” may be brought again in certain instances.

2) Not guilty – Also referred to as “acquittal,” this is the result of the fact-finder (usually a jury of one’s peers, but occasionally a judge) hearing evidence in a trial and concluding that State has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant committed the offense charged. This results in termination of the charge. The State may not again prosecute a charge upon which a verdict of not guilty has been delivered.

3) Nolle prosequi – This is a Latin term meaning “prosecution will not be pursued.” This form of dismissal occurs when the State formally declares on the record that it will not further prosecute the case either as to some of the charges or as to some of the defendants (or all together). Nolle prosequi is appropriate where the State concludes that it does not have sufficient evidence to proceed with immediate prosecution of a criminal case but wishes to preserve its option to do so in the future.

After an indictment is issued, nolle prosequi can be granted only with permission of the court. No conviction can be had on a charging instrument (e.g., arrest warrant or indictment) that is dismissed by nolle prosequi; instead, the State must open a new case.

4) Dismissed as corrected – A court may grant this form of dismissal where the defendant can show the court that he or she has corrected the alleged violation. This form of dismissal is common in cases involving motor vehicle related violations, such as:

- vehicle equipment (“fix-it”) deficiencies;

- failure to carry or present driver’s license;

- failure to carry or present vehicle registration; and

- failure to carry or present auto insurance.

How a charge is dismissed is, therefore, a detail that should not be overlooked while pursuing settlement of a criminal case. For this reason, obtaining detailed advice from a skilled attorney is crucial. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, call the attorneys at Patton | Pittman to discuss your case.

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