On television, police routinely make an arrest at the scene of a crime or as soon as they know the identity of the suspect. In reality, the system works differently. How long can the police wait to charge a crime? The answer is a long time.
Our clients are frequently shocked to find out they’ve been charged with a felony or misdemeanor after weeks, months, or years since the time of the alleged crime. They ask, “if they had evidence that I was guilty, wouldn’t they have arrested me sooner?” Because of stereotypes perpetuated by television and movies, most people are not aware that in real life, investigations can take quite a bit of time.
In most situations, police do not make an immediate arrest when a complaint is made about a possible crime. Under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a defendant has a right to a “speedy trial.” If a charged defendant insists on a speedy trial, there may not be time for the police to conduct a thorough investigation. Because of this, the government doesn’t proceed with a prosecution until they are satisfied they’ve collected enough evidence to take the case to court.
Reasons for a Delay in Charges
There are many reasons that there can be a delay in the issuance of felony or misdemeanor charges. In some cases, the investigating law enforcement agency or agencies need to conduct a thorough investigation. Some investigative tools that take time include:
- Finding and interviewing witnesses,
- Using phono-lineups or “show up” procedures to identify the suspect,
- Issuing subpoenas to seize evidence,
- Conducting physical or electronic surveillance,
- Conducting scientific, laboratory, ballistic, or forensic analysis,
- Obtaining GPS, cell phone tower, and phone records,
- Locating and analyzing surveillance audio and video,
- Subpoenaing evidence from social media websites,
- Securing and executing wiretaps and pen registers, and more.
Once the investigation is completed, the reports and evidence have to be reviewed by a prosecutor. Except in the most obvious, misdemeanor cases, prosecutors determine the charges, not police officers or law enforcement agents. If the evidence is voluminous or the prosecutor has a large workload, there can be a delay in determining the charges.
Conversely, some misdemeanors can be charged with a ticket issued by police officers. Misdemeanor charges that are frequently charged directly by police officers include Retail Fraud, OWI, DUI, OWPD, Driving on a Suspended License (DWLS), Reckless Driving, and Domestic Violence. Even though a police officer may issue a ticket for one of these offenses, the prosecutor has the final decision-making authority. Even in cases that seem uncomplicated, a prosecutor may want the police to do some additional investigation before deciding what crimes to charge.
If a lot of time goes by, does that mean it is less likely that I will be charged?
You can never count on there not being a criminal charge until the investigation is completed, and the prosecutor decides not to authorize charges. When a prosecutor looks at the evidence and denies a warrant, the case is dropped. If more evidence is located or found at a future date, the decision to deny the charges can be changed, and a warrant can be issued. A police officer cannot force a prosecutor to authorize a charge; however, he or she can keep digging for additional evidence and try to change the prosecutor’s mind.
Should I hire a lawyer if I have not been charged?
An experienced criminal defense lawyer can communicate with the police and prosecutor before there are criminal charges. In some cases, the defense attorney may be able to provide key information that prevents charges from being issued. In many cases, the police or a detective may want to talk with you. Remember, anything you say, “can and will be used against you.” If the police think you are guilty, they will twist whatever you say so that it makes you look guilty. A veteran lawyer can speak on your behalf and avoid providing the government with additional evidence to use against you. Hiring a lawyer early, especially one who is known and has experience, can help you avoid being arrested if charges are issued. A sophisticated, retained lawyer can negotiate for an opportunity for you to turn yourself in at the courthouse, instead of jail.
Will hiring a lawyer make me look guilty?
You cannot be arrested or charged for how you “look.” If there is enough evidence, you will be charged. By hiring a lawyer, the police and the prosecutor will know you are serious about your defense. An innocent person hires counsel right away in an attempt to avoid charges. Many guilty people know they will be charged, so they just wait for the arrest. If a client is innocent, a defense attorney may be able to stop their client from being charged. If a client did something wrong and committed a crime, the attorney can take steps to mitigate the situation, reduce the charges, or get the client help so he or she can avoid a harsh sentence.
If the police are waiting to get a warrant, what can a lawyer do in the meantime?
Evidence can degrade or become less impactful as time passes. Surveillance videos can be recorded over, biological evidence can be destroyed or diluted, fingerprints can be smudged or cleaned, witnesses can be lost, people can be pressured to change testimony. In some cases, evidence that is destroyed can benefit the defendant; however, if evidence that would be helpful to the defense is destroyed or lost, that can help the prosecutor. If a defendant, or someone on his or her behalf, purposefully destroys evidence, that is a separate crime. Police frequently get away with allowing evidence that is favorable to the defense to be lost or destroyed.
If hired early enough, a defense lawyer can take steps to secure and preserve evidence favorable to their client. If done early, witnesses can be easily located and interviewed. Surveillance recordings can be secured and preserved before the police delay the investigation long enough so that the recordings can no longer be recovered.
Evidence obtained by an attorney who is hired on a pre-charge basis can be used to convince the prosecutor to drop charges or convince a jury that the defendant is not guilty if the case should end up in a jury trial.
How long can police wait to issue charges?
The only definitive limitation on the government relative to how long they can wait to bring a charge is the applicable statute of limitations. For most crimes, the limitation period is 6 years. For more serious offenses, the statute of limitations can be 10 years or more. In the most serious cases, there is no statute of limitations and charges can be brought at any time.
Lawyers with Experience Defending and Protecting Their Clients
If you think you may be the subject of a criminal investigation, you need to hire counsel immediately to protect and defend you. The attorneys with LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C. have decades of experience defending and protecting clients on a pre-charge basis. We have been able to get investigations dropped and prevent criminal charges for countless clients. In cases where charges cannot be avoided, we have been able to use any delay in bringing charges as an opportunity to discover crucial evidence, take measures to reduce charges, and develop a strategy to lessen any sentence that may be imposed.
You know the expression, “an ostrich buries its head in the sand?” An ostrich that buries its head does not avoid trouble; it just delays the inevitable. Do not bury your head in the sand and wait to see if you get charged. Be proactive, and let us help you get out of a bad situation.
Call us today at (248) 263-6800 for a free consultation, or complete a Request for Assistance Form and we will contact you promptly.