Can criminal cases be resolved without going to court?

Do you always have to go to court to deal with a criminal charge?

Many cities and counties throughout the country have programs or informal practices designed to resolve minor cases without criminal prosecution. These programs and practices differ from diversion in that they typically don’t involve direct oversight by a court.

A Different Kind of Hearing

Programs that go by names like “office hearing” and “citation hearing” typically involve meeting with, at a minimum, a prosecutor or hearing officer. For instance, a prosecutor might agree to refrain from filing shoplifting charges if the defendant (with his attorney), comes in for a citation hearing. At this hearing, the prosecutor might ask the suspect for his version of events, discuss the seriousness of the accusation, warn him that any further misbehavior will lead to the filing of charges, and convince him to repay the victim's losses.

If the prosecutor is satisfied with the meeting, then he typically won’t file charges—or if he’s already filed them, he will likely dismiss them. (Some kinds of hearings and meetings are more formal than others, and can even involve statements from witnesses; going into it, the person presiding over the hearing or meeting might be undecided as to whether to recommend criminal prosecution.)

Conflict Mediation

Some pre-prosecution programs are designed with an emphasis on mediating conflicts between parties, one of whom could be subject to criminal prosecution. For example, a prosecutor might schedule an office hearing so that she can attempt to resolve the dispute between the accused shoplifter and the store owner. Upon successful mediation, the prosecutor won’t file—or will dismiss—criminal charges.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been accused of a crime and want to know whether you might be able to avoid criminal prosecution, consult an experienced local attorney. That attorney should be familiar with local practices, both formal and informal, for resolving criminal cases short of going to court. If you've been summoned for a meeting or hearing, make sure to immediately consult with a lawyer. Failing to appear, being unprepared, or saying something incriminating can have serious ramifications.

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