The “plaintiff” in a criminal case is the government.
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.
Mistakenly thinking the “victim” is the “plaintiff” in a criminal case is a common misconception.
A widespread 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 requesting the money and starting the lawsuit is the “plaintiff.” In a felony or misdemeanor case, the “plaintiff” is the governmental agency that charged 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, 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 called the “complainant” and not a “plaintiff.” This is true even if the person who 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.
Does a complainant or victim have the ability to drop charges?
In criminal cases, alleged victims are often known to the defendant, not the plaintiff. 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 connected through school or work. In all of these cases, the complainant has 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, which 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.
Several things are possible if the complainant or victim fails to appear for trial or a preliminary examination. 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. If 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 re-file the charges at a later time. The prosecutor decides how to proceed, whether to dismiss, and whether to re-charge is complex. The quality of the defense and defense lawyer will likely be critically important in the prosecution’s judgment. If a judge decides 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. For example, there is no living victim in a murder case, yet the case proceeds to court.
Because the victim or complainant in a criminal case is not the “plaintiff,” the court can and usually will proceed without that person’s presence.
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 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 complainant’s motive in requesting a dismissal, charge reduction, or a sentence without jail. In some cases, the complainant may be motivated to request a dismissal out of fear of the defendant, family pressure, or financial dependence. The complainant may want the charges dismissed in some cases 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 cautious 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 witness’s testimony, additional 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 that you need professional help, the better. The Defense Team with LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C. has successfully defended 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, and we will find a way to help you.
Call us today at (248) 263-6800 for a free consultation or complete a Request for Assistance Form. We will contact you promptly and find a way to help you.