Plaintiff in a Criminal Case

The “plaintiff” in a criminal case is not what you might think. The complaining witness or alleged victim is not the plaintiff; the plaintiff in a criminal charge is the government.

A very common misunderstanding in criminal cases is who or what is the plaintiff. The plaintiff in any litigation is the person or party bringing the case to court. In a civil case, generally a lawsuit over money, the person who is requesting the money and starting the lawsuit is the “plaintiff.” In a felony or misdemeanor case, the “plaintiff” is the governmental agency that charges the defendant with the criminal offense. For a felony charge, the “plaintiff” is always the State of Michigan for a state charge and the United States of America for a federal charge. In misdemeanor cases, like domestic violence for example, the “plaintiff” is either the State of Michigan or the city, township or village bringing the charges.

The person who makes the complaint, often referred to as the victim, is referred to as a “complainant” and not a “plaintiff”. This is true even if the person who actually reported the incident was not the alleged victim. The complainant is considered a witness to the charge and has no more legal standing in court than any other witness.

Plaintiff in a Criminal Case

Does a complainant or victim have the ability to drop charges?

In criminal cases, alleged victims are often known to the defendant. In domestic violence cases, the defendant is frequently related to the complainant or in a dating relationship. In an embezzlement case, the defendant is the employee of the complainant. In home invasion cases, the complainant and the defendant are frequently acquaintances or neighbors. As a final example, in criminal sexual conduct cases, the complainant and the defendant are often legally related, dating or have a connection through school or work. In all of these cases, the complainant absolutely no power or authority over the charges. These individuals cannot bring charges, dismiss charges or reduce charges. Who can dismiss charges or reduce charges? Only the prosecutor has the power to change or dismiss charges.

What if the complainant or victim doesn’t show up in court?

A common misconception is that the complainant or victim must show up to all court hearings. In truth, the only time a victim or complainant must appear is when they receive a subpoena to appear and this generally only happens at trial or a preliminary examination. The complainant or victim can voluntarily appear at arraignments, pretrials and other types of hearings but their attendance is not mandatory.

If the complainant or victim fails to appear for trial or a preliminary examination, several things are possible. If that person’s testimony is necessary, the prosecution may seek to admit that person’s hearsay statements to the police, 911 dispatcher or other witnesses. Generally, hearsay is not admissible but there are exceptions. Another possibility is that the prosecutor will seek an adjournment and request a material witness warrant. If this happens, the complainant will be arrested and compelled by the court to testify or stay incarcerated. In the event that the court refuses to grant the prosecution an adjournment, the case may be dismissed “without prejudice”. If the case is dismissed “without prejudice” the prosecutor can simply re-file the charges at a later time. The decision of the prosecutor on how to proceed, whether to dismiss, and whether to re-charge is complex and the quality of the defense and defense lawyer will likely be critically important in the prosecution’s judgment. If a court is deciding on whether to let the prosecutor proceed with evidence, in the absence of the victim or complainant, the defense lawyer will be the only person standing between a conviction and a dismissal or acquittal. Don’t forget, cases can proceed without a victim. In every murder case for example, there is no living victim and yet the case proceeds to court.

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What if the complainant or victim wants charges dismissed?

Most prosecutors have no regard whatsoever for the wishes of the victim or complainant. On the other hand, some prosecutors will at least factor in the complainant’s wishes when deciding what plea bargain or sentence to offer the defendant or if a dismissal of charges is appropriate. Dismissals under these circumstances are few and far between in reality. The prosecutor frequently will try to understand the motive of the complainant in making a request for a dismissal, charge reduction or a sentence without jail. In some cases, the complainant may be motivated to make the request out of fear of the defendant, family pressure, or financial dependence. In some cases, the complainant may want the charges dismissed because the original allegations were false or exaggerated. The motives of a complainant are complex and a defense lawyer can frequently discuss these issues with the prosecutor while advocating for a lenient sentence, plea bargain or a dismissal of all charges.

The defendant must be very, very careful not to attempt to influence the victim of a crime or intimidate that person in any way. If the government believes that anything improper was done to influence a witnesses testimony, addiction criminal charges will likely be filed.

Complainant or Victim Seeing to Help or Hurt the Defendant

If you or someone you love is charged with a felony or misdemeanor offense and the complainant or victim desires or is trying to affect the charges for or against you, the sooner you realize the that you need professional help the better. The Defense Team with LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C. has been successfully defending clients charged in state and federal court for decades. If you want superior representation and there is no room for errors and false promises in your defense, call us today at (248) 263-6800 or complete a Request for Assistance Form and a highly experienced Michigan Criminal Defense Lawyer will promptly contact you.

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