When law enforcement officers believe you have been involved in a crime, they can arrest you, but they do not have the legal authority to actually charge you with an offense. Instead, they are required to submit their case reports to the office of the District Attorney, which will assign the case to a prosecutor for review. The prosecutor then has the discretion whether to file official criminal charges against you or not. Prosecutorial discretion plays a significant role in many criminal cases and the following is a brief explanation of some of the ways it can affect you.
They can choose to file no charges at all
After reviewing your file, a prosecutor has the discretion to set your file aside and not file any charges against you. They may choose to do this for a variety of reasons, some of which may include:
- Law enforcement has not gathered enough evidence to support the allegation that you committed the crime.
- It is obvious that critical evidence was obtained by officers in violation of your rights under the 4th Amendment of the Constitution.1
- The law as written is outdated and is no longer relevant in modern society, though legislators have not stricken it from the books.
- There are procedural defects that exist in the case, such as the lapse of the statute of limitations for that particular offense.
- You agree to provide information regarding others involved in an offense or conspiracy in exchange for immunity from specific charges.
If any of the above reasons (or any other reason) apply to you case and the prosecutor opts not to charge you, police officers will simply release you without a summons or a citation. This does not mean that you will not potentially receive a summons at a later date, however.
Choosing which specific charges to file
If they do decide to file criminal charges, the prosecutor must decide which specific charges apply in your individual situation. If multiple charges may apply, they have the discretion to charge you with one, several, or all possible offenses. For example, if they are charging you with causing the death of another person, they may charge you with any of the following depending on your situation:
- Involuntary manslaughter
- Voluntary manslaughter
- Murder of the third degree
- Murder of the second degree
- Murder of the first degree
The penalties you may face if convicted can significantly vary depending on the charges the prosecutor chooses to file against you, and it is imperative to have a Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer who understands how to defend against any charges at issue.
Another stage of your case in which prosecutorial discretion plays a significant role is plea bargaining. In exchange for a guilty plea, a prosecutor can choose to decrease your sentence, offer probation instead of jail time, or recommend you for a diversion program in exchange for a guilty plea. Additionally, a prosecutor can choose whether to charge and sentence you as a prior offender, which can substantially affect the severity of your sentence. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will know how to present mitigating factors to the prosecutor during the plea bargaining stage so that they may consider a lesser sentence if you choose to plead guilty.
Discuss your situation with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible
Anytime you are arrested or believe you are under suspicion of a crime, you should immediately consult with a highly skilled Philadelphia criminal defense attorney about your case. Even if you are not yet facing criminal charges, the prosecutor has until the statute of limitations runs to issue charges against you. This statute of limitations will vary depending upon the suspected charge. For example, for involuntary manslaughter, Pennsylvania law sets the statue of limitations2 at two years from the date of the suspected offense. Some crimes, however, such as murder, have no statute of limitations and the case could remain open against you indefinitely.
Simply because you have not yet been charged does not mean you should not have a defense attorney advising you of your rights and investigating your case. An attorney can also represent you during communications with law enforcement if they call you in for questioning. At The Zeiger Firm in Philadelphia, we can help you at any stage of your criminal case. Please call us today at 215-546-0340 to find out how we can help you.