Can Someone Be Arrested, Even If I Didn't Press Charges?

by Rowan Guthrie
Law enforcement officer interrogating Criminals male with handcuffs in the investigation room Police officer interviewing after committed a crime

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

The criminal justice system can be complex, especially when it comes to the role of victims in pressing charges. While you might think it's entirely your choice whether the perpetrator faces consequences if a crime is committed against you, that's not always the case.

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What Does It Mean to Press Charges?

Pressing charges refers to the act of initiating criminal proceedings against someone you believe committed a crime against you. When you report a crime, you become the complaining witness, and your statement becomes evidence in the investigation.

In some jurisdictions, pressing charges refers to a process in which you formally accuse another person of a crime. Or the term may simply signify that you’re willing to cooperate with the investigation and potentially testify in court to see justice done.

Why Would Someone Decide Not to Press Charges?

There are many reasons a victim might choose not to press charges. These include:

  • Fear of retaliation
  • Emotional strain from reliving the incident (or anticipated emotional strain caused by reliving the incident during a trial)
  • A desire to maintain a relationship with the offender  
  • A lack of faith in the criminal justice system
  • Worries about the financial burden of a lengthy court case
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Under What Circumstances Can Law Enforcement Proceed With an Arrest Without a Victim Pressing Charges?

Even if you choose not to press charges, law enforcement can still pursue an arrest in many situations. Here's why authorities might make that choice.

Public Safety

Certain crimes, such as violent offenses or public disturbances, pose a threat to the community as a whole. In these cases, law enforcement has to act, regardless of the victim's wishes, as the greater good overrules the wishes of one person.

Witness and Evidence Availability

A strong case built on witness testimony, physical evidence or video surveillance may not require the victim's direct participation in the prosecution. Simply put, if there’s a strong chance of a conviction without your help, law enforcement may pursue it.

Domestic Violence

Due to the complexities of domestic violence cases, some states have laws allowing or requiring the prosecution to move forward even if the victim withdraws their complaint. 

Here are a few other examples of when police can arrest without pressed charges:

  • A neighbor witnesses a physical altercation between a couple in the apartment next door and calls the police. Even if the couple involved refuses to press charges against each other, the police can arrest one or both parties based on the witness's account and any physical evidence at the scene.
  • A bystander witnesses a mugging and reports the incident. A surveillance camera captures the mugging, but the victim refuses to press charges. The police can still proceed with an arrest based on the video evidence alone.
  • A security camera captures footage of a robbery at a convenience store. If the police can identify the suspect, an arrest warrant can be issued based on the video evidence, even if the store owner chooses not to press charges.

Can You Prevent Someone From Being Convicted, Even If They Are Arrested?

While you can't stop the arrest itself, you can still play a role in the outcome of the case. 

Refusal to Cooperate

If you choose not to cooperate with the prosecution or refuse to testify in court, the case against the defendant may weaken significantly. However, some states have laws allowing the judge to compel your testimony. Prosecutors can force your appearance in court with a subpoena. You could be charged with contempt of court if you refuse to cooperate. Therefore, it’s prudent to check the laws in your state before you decide not to cooperate with the prosecution.

Defense Strategies

A criminal defense attorney can explore various defense strategies to challenge the evidence, raise reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt or reduce the potential sentence. Examples include:

  • Alibi defense
  • Self-defense
  • Lack of intent
  • Constitutional violations by the arresting officers
  • Plea bargaining

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Considering Your Options

If you've been the victim of a crime, the decision of whether or not to press charges is a personal one. It's important to weigh your options carefully and understand the potential consequences of each choice. Consulting with an attorney can help you navigate the legal complexities and ensure your rights are protected throughout the process. Many attorneys offer free consultations to discuss your situation so you can get professional advice before you decide which option is the best for you.

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