There are a number of ways in which a criminal case can be resolved. Three of the most common ways are through a dismissal, a plea agreement or a trial that ends either in a finding of guilt or an acquittal, a finding of not guilty.

Each of these comes with very different consequences for the person charged with a crime, the defendant. Both acquittal and dismissal mean that a defendant does not have to endure punishment, but otherwise the results of each mean something quite different for a defendant.

What Does It Mean When a Case Is Dismissed?

Dismissal may occur at any time before a case is submitted to either a judge or a jury for decision. A dismissal occurs when the prosecutor decides to dismiss the criminal charge against the defendant and not proceed further with prosecution of the case.

In a trial, of course, the jury or a judge, if the defendant has chosen to have their case decided by a judge, must determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. If the trial does not take place, then the issue of guilt is never decided, and the jury (or judge) does not determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

As a result, if there is a dismissal, there is no possibility for an acquittal, and the prosecutor could decide to renew the charges and pursue the prosecution again at a later time.

Why Would a Case Be Dismissed?

There are several reasons for which a judge might dismiss a criminal case, including:

  • Lack of Evidence at the Preliminary Hearing: Soon after a person is arrested and charged with a crime, the prosecution must conduct a preliminary hearing. It might also be called a probable cause hearing. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for the prosecution to present enough evidence to show the judge who presides over it that there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the crime with which they are charged. If the prosecution is successful at the preliminary hearing, then the criminal case may proceed to the next stage.

    However, if the evidence is clearly not sufficient to establish probable cause, then the attorney for the defendant would make a motion to dismiss the charge, and the judge would grant the motion and dismiss the case. A motion to dismiss might be called an “application for order of dismissal” in some courts. Of course, if the judge denies the motion to dismiss, prosecution of the case would proceed to trial or some pre-trial resolution of it, e.g. a plea agreement;
  • Suppression of Evidence: Evidence that the prosecution wants to use might become unavailable to the prosecution because the defendant’s attorney moves to suppress it. If the defendant’s motion to suppress is granted by the judge, it means that some piece of evidence cannot be used in a future trial by the prosecution. This could defeat the prosecution’s case.

    The evidence might be subject to suppression because it was obtained through a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. A defendant’s constitutional rights can be violated in a number of ways. It could be that the evidence was obtained through an illegal search or seizure that was done without justification. Or, it might be that the evidence was obtained through a failure to observe a defendant’s Miranda rights, that is the right to remain silent when interrogated by the police. Or the police may have failed to respect the defendant’s right to have an attorney present during questioning.

    Whatever the reason for the suppression of the evidence, the effect is the same. The prosecution cannot use the evidence. Without the specific item of evidence that is suppressed, the prosecution may become unable to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This could result in dismissal of the criminal charge.
  • Prosecutorial Misconduct: The prosecution has engaged in flagrant misconduct. An example of misconduct is when the prosecution has evidence that shows the innocence of the defendant but deliberately refuses to share that evidence with the defense. The U.S. Constitution requires that such evidence, known as exculpatory evidence, be given to the defense. If a judge finds that there has been concealment of exculpatory evidence and it was intentional, the case may be dismissed.

What Is the Difference Between Acquittal and Dismissal?

If a case ends in a dismissal, theoretically the prosecution can recharge the defendant with the same crime at a later date and proceed with the prosecution. Now, this may not be possible as a practical matter, but it might be possible in some cases. So, for example, if the case is dismissed because the prosecution has lost the ability to use a key piece of evidence at trial, it is almost certain that the prosecution would never begin again. Once the piece of evidence has been suppressed, it is lost to the prosecution permanently.

But there could possibly be instances in which the prosecution might lose the ability to use a piece of evidence and then regain it at a later date. Then the prosecution might go forward again. For example, a key witness might leave the country and be lost to the prosecution and then show up again at a later date, making the prosecution viable.

If a criminal case goes to trial, it can end in one of three ways. The verdict, or decision, in a criminal case can be made by either a judge, if the defendant chooses to have a judge decide the case, or by a jury. The judge or jury can find the defendant not guilty or guilty. Or, if the case is heard by a jury, the jury can fail to reach a verdict in which case the jury informs the judge of its inability to come to a unanimous decision. If this happens, the jury is said to be “hung” and there is no decision.

If the verdict is “not guilty,” then the defendant is said to have been “acquitted” of the crime of which they were charged. So, an acquittal is a judgment that the defendant is not guilty of the crime with which they were charged as a matter of law. To convict a criminal defendant, the prosecution must prove each element, or component, of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. A judgment of acquittal means the prosecution was unable to prove one or more of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

If a defendant is acquitted of a crime, of course, it does not mean that the defendant is in fact innocent. The defendant might in fact be innocent, but it is also possible that the prosecution simply could not prove the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, even though the defendant did, in fact, commit the crime.

Prosecutors sometimes charge defendants with more than one crime in order to increase the likelihood of getting a guilty verdict. If a defendant has been charged with committing more than one crime, and a verdict of not guilty is delivered with respect to each, the defendant has been completely acquitted. If the verdict is not guilty for one or more of the crimes charged, but guilty for one or more of the other offenses, the verdict is only a partial acquittal.

But the essential thing about an acquittal is that it means the defendant is cleared and cannot be prosecuted again for the crime. The defendant is not guilty of the particular crime charged, and the prosecution cannot change that with future actions.

The reason for this is the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It states that a criminal defendant cannot be tried twice for the same offense. If a judge or jury has acquitted a defendant of an offense, they cannot be tried by the same court for that particular offense at a later date.

If a jury is hung, then the prosecution can prosecute the defendant again and, often, the second time around, the prosecution is successful and the defendant is found guilty.

An example of the double jeopardy rule at work is when a defendant has been charged with burglary and at the defendant’s trial in a state trial court of the county where the crime was committed, the defendant is acquitted. The double jeopardy rule prevents that state county court from trying the defendant again for the burglary.

The rule against double jeopardy does not apply in two very limited circumstances:

  • When a state court and a federal court both charge a defendant with the same offense: Under the so-called doctrine of “separate sovereigns”, an acquittal in one court, state or federal, does not prevent a defendant from later being charged and tried on the same set of facts in the other court. In addition, a conviction in one of these courts does not prevent a defendant from later being convicted again in the other court.

    States may prohibit a defendant who was charged in federal court from later being tried in state court for the same offense. However, the federal constitution does not require the prohibition of dual prosecutions on the same set of facts in both state and federal courts;
  • When an individual is charged with a criminal offense that has a civil offense equivalent: For example, a judge or jury may have acquitted a defendant of a charge of murder, but this acquittal does not prevent the relatives of the murder victim from later bringing a civil wrongful death action against the defendant. However, the defendant cannot be tried again in criminal court for the crime of murder.

What are the Consequences of a Dismissal?

Again, an acquittal means that the defendant did not commit the crime with which they were charged as a matter of law. The prosecution can never again charge the defendant with the same crime on the basis of the same set of facts.

If a case is dismissed, however, before a verdict is reached in a trial, it is possible for the prosecution to resume the prosecution of the case again at a later time. Also, since the issue of the defendant’s guilt or innocence is not decided, the jury (or judge) does not have the opportunity to declare that a defendant is not guilty. Guilt or innocence is not decided. The only issue that has been decided is that prosecution of the case is not going forward.

Can I Sue if My Case Is Dismissed?

Malicious prosecution refers to a criminal or civil case that is filed and prosecuted wholly without an adequate basis in fact and for an improper purpose, such as harassment of the defendant, or to ruin the targeted person’s reputation.

If a prosecutor files such a case and the charges are dismissed, the defendant can sue the prosecutor for malicious prosecution and seek an award of money damages. Currently, the likelihood that a prosecutor would engage in malicious prosecution is very low. A person who wants to claim malicious prosecution would have to show that there was no basis in fact whatsoever for the prosecution. This would be challenging if there are any facts to support the prosecution.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with My Criminal Law Case?

Acquittal and dismissal are two of the possible ways in which a criminal case can be resolved. If you wish to understand more about these and other options for the defense of your case, you may wish to consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer near you can assess the facts and circumstances of your case, and can represent you at hearings and at trial. You are most likely to get the best possible outcome in your case if you have an experienced criminal defense lawyer representing your interests.