How Innocent Defendants Handle Criminal Charges

The filing of charges doesn't always mean that you'll have to duke it out at trial.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Even the most well-intentioned prosecutors file charges against innocent suspects occasionally. Regardless of the reason charges were filed, innocent defendants want to know what they—or preferably, their lawyers—can do to avoid a conviction. So, other than going to trial, how can defendants avoid a guilty plea or verdict?

Should You Try to Prove Your Innocence?

To start with—and while it might sound counterintuitive—it's typically best not to offer up any information to police or investigators or to communicate with the accuser until you've spoken to a lawyer. Many think that an innocent person has nothing to lose by speaking up and telling the truth, but facts can get twisted around or confused and you can end up causing yourself more harm than good.

Also remember that, in the American legal system, it's the prosecutor's job to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It's not the defendant's job to prove their innocence. You don't want to inadvertently make matters worse, so discuss matters with your lawyer before speaking to others about your case.

How Do Innocent People End Up Facing Criminal Charges?

Police might investigate a case based on a victim calling 911, a witness reporting a crime, or an accuser asking to press criminal charges against someone. Regardless of how the case comes to the attention of the police, it's the prosecutor that decides whether to file criminal charges. And when a case comes across the desk of a prosecutor, all that's often available is the police report of the incident in question.

One-Sided Police Report

Your average police report—at least a preliminary one—is limited in the information it conveys. Furthermore, police reports frequently get some facts wrong, whether because of misstatements or lies by witnesses or because of errors or bias on the part of officers.

A police report might misrepresent a potentially minor fact, such as the exact words between two participants in an argument that turned into a physical fight. Or it might be flatly wrong, such as when the aggressor in an incident claims the defendant attacked him, whereas the defendant really acted in self-defense. Alleged victims might even lie about or exaggerate injuries.

Risks of Going to Trial Even for the Innocent

If the charges are unfounded, the defendant certainly has the option of going to trial, hoping for an acquittal. But criminal trials aren't only risky and expensive, they're also tremendously stressful, as are the proceedings that lead up to them. That's why, before some cases get that far, good defense lawyers will try to nip them in the bud.

Can the Case Be Dropped Before Charges Are Filed?

Pretrial communication is one of many reasons hiring an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as reasonably possible is your best bet. (That said, you shouldn't rush into the decision, nor allow a lawyer to pressure you into hiring him or her. Also, you can typically hire a lawyer for initial representation, then, if appropriate, switch to another one later on.)

If the facts are suitable, some lawyers will try to intervene before the prosecution even files charges. This might involve contacting the arresting or investigating officer before the case gets to the prosecution, or getting in touch with the prosecutor before the filing decision is made. Particularly in less serious cases, the defense attorney might be able to explain the incident such that the case never sees a courtroom. But defendants shouldn't get their hopes up too much about this course of action—it often won't work.

Can Charges Be Dismissed Before Going to Court?

Oftentimes innocent defendants have to wait until the filing of charges before their lawyers can get involved. But that doesn't mean that trial is necessarily in the cards. A client meeting with his or her lawyer should give a complete overview of the facts and anything else that might be relevant (for example, the history of the relationship between the defendant and the alleged victim). At that point, the lawyer can weigh the options.

The lawyer might decide that it's best to immediately investigate the incident and gather evidence (including witness declarations). With this information, the lawyer might try to persuade the prosecution to dismiss the charges. For example, a prosecutor might listen to a defense lawyer who can prove that there's no way the facts could have unfolded the way an alleged victim or witness claims. Of course, depending on the situation, many lawyers will decide it's best not to get into too much detail with the prosecution for fear of giving away material in advance of a potential trial.

Letting It Play Out: Signs of a Weak Criminal Case

Sometimes the best move for the defense is to do nothing. It can take several months for the prosecution to learn that there's insufficient evidence to convict the defendant, whether because a witness recants a story or it becomes evident that the witness isn't credible. (For instance, the witness might have a history of false accusations, or an alleged victim might be actually motivated by a family issue, like child custody.)

Other times a case might go away because the defense wins a pretrial motion, like one to suppress illegally seized evidence. Or perhaps (in a felony case), the defense will win the preliminary hearing, and the prosecution will decide not to re-file. There are several in-court proceedings that might bring about the end of a case short of a plea or trial. But the defense's chances truly depend on the circumstances.

Get a Lawyer

You probably need a lawyer for many reasons, not least of which is the pretrial stage. Only an attorney can carry out the tasks discussed in this article. Further, an experienced lawyer's judgment in these matters is essential—your lawyer should be the one to decide which method(s) to pursue, even if that means waiting patiently for trial.

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