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Can the Victim Drop Domestic Violence Charges?

Let's consider a fairly common domestic violence situation: your spouse has seriously injured you by punching or kicking or choking, and either you or someone you know (family, friends, neighbors, etc.) has contacted the police. The police arrive and issue a domestic violence charge against your spouse.

The situation is chaotic. You're scared about what might happen. You don't want to be abused, but you also don't want to see your spouse get into legal trouble. Many battered spouses feel the same need to protect their abuser. You may be wondering whether you, the victim, can drop the charges.

The answer is no. Once the police or the State Prosecutor's Office has issued a charge of domestic violence, the victim has no authority to drop the charges. But why not? Domestic violence is a crime. The process behind criminal charges is frequently misunderstood. Most people believe that victims of crime issue the charges. This is wrong. Crimes are governed by the State, and it's the State that issues criminal charges, not the victim.

In other words, since you didn't issue the charge, you cannot drop the charge. Therefore it's the State (and in particular, the Prosecutor's Office) who will decide whether to move forward with the case or drop the charges. Keep in mind that even though you aren't the one to bring the criminal charges, you'll have an important role to play as the proceedings advance.

The Victim's Role in the Case

Victims have many roles to play as a domestic violence case moves forward. For example, if there's a trial, then you'll probably be required to testify in court against your abuser, but keep in mind that in some states, such as California, you can refuse to testify, though you might have to pay a fine or be charged with a crime. You may also be required to appear in court for some other purpose, or to retrieve documents or evidence for the court. Victims are often brought in to explain their opinions, too. If the judge is making a decision on whether to release the abuser, you may be invited to speak about whether you agree with the release decision and why.

Be aware that, as a victim, your role doesn't have to be passive. In other words, your role doesn't have to be limited to testifying in the criminal case, or being invited by the court to speak about your opinions, or retrieving documents or evidence. It's fully within your rights to bring your own civil suit. Bringing a civil suit means that, as a victim, you can sue your abuser for money to pay for your personal injuries, wage losses, psychological injuries, and even for cost of living.

You have protection options as well. You can try to get a restraining order against your abuser. Restraining orders can help provide for your safety, especially since some restraining orders will force your abuser to give up his or her guns for the duration. Also, depending on your state, you may be given the option to break your current lease early. If you are afraid of your abuser being released and hurting you again, you should look into this option so that you can find a place to live separately.

Differences Between Criminal Cases and Civil Suits

If you are a victim of domestic violence, you may be wondering whether you want to file a civil suit against your abuser, even if there's a criminal charge already filed. Remember, crimes are offenses against the State (only the State can issue a charge or drop the charge), and civil offenses are offenses against victims (you can choose to sue or not).

There are benefits to filing a civil suit. In addition to helping to obtain money to pay for your injuries, loss of wages, and any other costs related to the abuse, a civil suit is generally easier to win than a criminal case. In a criminal case, the abuser has to be proved guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." The "reasonable doubt" standard is usually considered about 99%. That means the State would have to prove that there is a 99% chance that your abuser committed the domestic violence acts. In a civil case, however, the standard is "preponderance of evidence," which is usually considered a 51% standard. That means in a civil case you would have to prove only that it is more likely than not that your abuser committed the domestic violence acts.

Recanting Your Statement

Even though victims of domestic violence cannot drop the criminal charges, victims frequently want to recant their statements to police and investigators (80-90% of domestic violence victims recant). Recanting is taking back your original statement. For example, you may have told police that your spouse was beating you, but later want to recant that statement.

It's generally not a good idea to recant unless you have actually lied to authorities. Recanting won't necessarily force the State to drop the case, since the state can still prosecute the case using police reports, photographs, and other evidence. Also, if you recant, you could face criminal charges for falsifying information to law enforcement authorities and the court.

The process following a domestic violence situation can be confusing and emotionally challenging. Please contact a local domestic violence attorney to help guide you as the process moves forward.

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