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What Does Press Charges Mean?

By Christy Bieber
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The phrase "to press charges" means that a victim of a criminal action reports that action to the police, filing a police report so the district attorney or local prosecutor can then prosecute a case. Generally, this causes criminal charges to be brought by the prosecutor against an accused person. Once those criminal charges are filed, the accused may be arrested and will have to either arrange a plea bargain with the prosecutor or will have to stand trial for the crime and potentially face jail time or other penalties.

Pressing charges is different than suing in civil court. When a person decides to take this action, he will not benefit monetarily as a result of the outcome of the case. Instead, the case will essentially be out of his hands and handled by a prosecutor; he may be called upon to testify at a trial or to provide evidence to support the charges, but the onus is ultimately on the prosecutor to create a theory of the case, to collect evidence and to try the case. In a civil suit, on the other hand, the plaintiff sues and must prove that the defendant injured him either negligently or on purpose; the plaintiff then recovers monetary damages if he can prove these elements.

If a person decides to press charges, he must report the event that occurred in as much detail as possible. The prosecutor will then review the information provided and determine whether to prosecute or not. Not every situation leads to an arrest or trial. Sometimes, the prosecutor will decide there is insufficient evidence to arrest the accused and take him to trial; other times, the prosecutor will determine the behavior of the accused did not meet all the elements of the crime and therefore no criminal sanctions are appropriate.

At times, a prosecutor may also try a case even if the victim decides not to press charges. Because a law has been broken, the accused defendant's actions are not just a crime against the victim, but also against the state and its laws. As such, a prosecutor doesn't necessarily need a victim to cooperate, and he can subpoena or compel a victim to testify to prove his case if necessary. This may occur in domestic violence cases where a victim may be unlikely to wish to prosecute his or her her significant other, especially if he or she stays in the abusive relationship.

What Does It Mean To Press Charges?

Though it’s a term commonly heard on television or in the movies, pressing charges is an important part of bringing justice to a victim of a crime. However, many people misunderstand what it means to press charges. The term means to take legal action against someone or to lodge an official accusation against the offending party to be sorted out in a court of law. The accusation must be the commission of a crime and have sufficient evidence to prove it, which is why not just anyone is able to press charges.

Who Can Press Charges?

Even if you have been wronged, you are not able to formally press charges against the offender. You can give your statement to the police and any evidence you have collected, but the individual being accused may not necessarily be arrested right away and charged with a crime. If the police witness the crime in question, they can formally make an arrest based on their observation. If not and there is no probable cause for an arrest, law enforcement officers will need to collect evidence to present to the county prosecutor before charges may be placed upon the individual.

As the victim in the case, you can support the police by offering evidence or your testimony of the event. Often times it is this willingness to participate in the process that leads people to believe they are pressing charges. Filing a police report is the start of pressing charges, but it’s the prosecutor who will formally determine which charges are appropriate.

What Determines Charges?

The amount of evidence provided by the victim and the police inform the prosecutor what type of charges could be filed against an offender. There are different categories of crimes, and based on the evidence provided, the prosecutor determines which crimes were committed and what could potentially be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Charges could range from a misdemeanor to a felony.

How To Press Charges on Someone

When you have been the victim of a crime, perhaps theft, vandalism, abuse or otherwise, you will need to make a formal record of the incident with your local police. You can either go to the local police station or you can call and have officers respond to your location where the crime took place. If the offender is still on-site where the crime took place, it’s possible that an arrest can be made right away. This can only take place if there is probable cause. Evidence for probable cause includes:

  • Eyewitness testimony from witnesses on scene
  • Testimony from the victim
  • Physical evidence recovered or observed at the crime scene
  • Presence of physical injuries to the victim
  • Video or photographs of the incident
  • Statements made by the accused

Filing the police report gives law enforcement permission to open an investigation into the case and file a charging document or criminal complaint in court. From there, the accused becomes the defendant and must answer to the charges placed on his record.

How Long Does It Take To Press Charges on Someone?

Even though you may be the victim, you can’t force the prosecutor to move forward with charging the accused. Your cooperation will encourage charges to be pressed, but the prosecutor has to look at all the evidence and determine if the case is strong enough to stand up to a trial. In some cases, the prosecutor must also present the charges to a judge or grand jury to determine if there is enough evidence to move forward with a trial.

Cooperating With the Prosecution

Most of the time, a prosecutor can press charges against an offender without the cooperation of the victim. Some victims are afraid of what may happen if charges are pressed, such as in domestic abuse or assault cases, but the prosecutor can move forward anyway. If the victim doesn’t cooperate, it takes a lot longer for the charges to be filed. Legal documents like subpoenas need to be issued, and sometimes, it takes a bench warrant to get a victim to appear in court. Cooperating is the most effective way to have charges pressed quickly.

Filing Private Charges

Some states allow a private individual to press a criminal complaint against an individual for minor or misdemeanor crimes. Things like simple battery and trespassing could be brought to court without the use of a prosecutor or the involvement of the police, but it is rare. Attempting to get charges filed on your own without legal help and the involvement of the police could also see a significant delay in legal action.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1000349 — On Aug 30, 2018

I was physically pushed into traffic by co worker at work and fell on my back. I hurt my elbow with possible fracture. Can I press charges against the employee?

By anon998588 — On Jul 10, 2017

My ex boyfriend was choking me this past Saturday night and then pushed me into the kitchen table where I fell. He left my house, well I thought. When I woke up Sunday morning, I got dressed and ready to leave when I noticed my car tires were all flat and on one tire it looks as if he was trying to cut the stem of the tire. My question is, what happens if I file charges? I am afraid the he will want to retaliate and do something else.

By anon995519 — On May 06, 2016

I have a different issue. The person accused me of sexual harassment, but did not want to file charges. The police were called and without any investigation told me that I am guilty and must do a public apology. No charges were pressed but my name was pulled through the mud and my reputation damaged.

When I went to the police to complain, they said that I will be better off to shut up since there are no records of any kind, but if make the accuser mad, she can change her mind and press charges and I will have a criminal record and all the stuff associated with criminal prosecution. The school threatened to kick me out if I do not apologize. I have never done what accuser said. Such a stinking situation in my life.

By anon992595 — On Sep 18, 2015

My daughter was having a pizza party in the park with her friends. They're 12 and 13 years old. Then, this 17 year old cheerleader comes and says I want you to leave. I want to sit at this table. My daughter said no, they were not done, and the cheerleader starts being racist and starts making fun of what the girls were wearing. Their parents couldn't afford to buy them good things. But she has money and she thinks she could do anything she wanted because she was white. She hit my daughter and my daughter hit her back and they started fighting. Then her mom started pulling my daughter's hair and her dad comes and grabs my daughter so his cheerleader daughter starts punching my daughter in the stomach while her mom is pulling her hair. My son, who is 12, says to the dad, “Leave my sister alone” and he punched my son in the chest and and pulled his shirt and started threatening him with his fist and also my daughter's friend got beat up. What can I do? I pressed charges and the police have not done anything about it.

By anon357400 — On Dec 03, 2013

I was sexually abused a few months ago and I called the sheriff's office. They arrested the man, but now all the charges are removed from his record without my consent! Is that legal?

By anon352129 — On Oct 19, 2013

The root cause of the world's problems are succinctly captured on this page. Any society that can restore a victim's right to press or drop charges independent of state officials will lead the restoration of justice.

By amypollick — On Sep 29, 2013

@anon349726: Well, if you lie on the stand for him, that's called perjury, or lying under oath. It's a felony charge and if you're caught and convicted, that's prison time for you.

You are absolutely right that this guy needs to face what he has done. If he's facing such a stiff sentence for this, he must have a string of domestic violence cases a mile long. Do you really want to ruin your own life by committing perjury, knowing he *will* do this again? Sure, he's sorry. Most abusers are sorry after they beat someone half to death. But his history has proved that, barring a major change in his mentality, he will abuse again. It might be you, or it might be someone else, but he will do it again! It's about time he faced the music, in my opinion.

And here's one more thought: how much does he *really* care about you that he would rather you run the personal risk of being caught lying under oath, than take his medicine? Staying out of jail is obviously more important to him than protecting you from committing a crime.

By anon349726 — On Sep 28, 2013

Mine is an assault. I was slammed in a door. I do have a slick mouth. But anyway, I haven't pressed charges on him. It looks like he has been prosecuted for violence before. Some people told me how he had abused them, and came back and apologized.

So why am I going against him and dealing with the DA? He has begged to me lie on stand for him, to do whatever it takes to get him free. I do love him, but I think he must at some point get that hitting is not the answer. Am I right or wrong? He could get two years to life for having a past history of domestic assault.

By anon341215 — On Jul 09, 2013

Can I press charges and file a civil suit on an off duty officer for pulling his weapon and firing "warning shots" in our direction? He was 4 wheeling out in a farmer's field and I went to run him off and he pulled his gun.

I filed a report but the cops down played the situation and I am guessing no charges will be filed. They left this guy free to stand at the top of my road and harass us by flashing his lights and failing his arms around,. I would have been arrested if this same situation was reversed.

By amypollick — On Dec 19, 2012

@TiffanyN1025: What you would need to do is call the police department in your town and tell them the guy you think stole your husband's things was arrested in a nearby town. Try to speak with the officer who took your report -- he or she probably gave you a card. Ask the officer if they can look into it. If they have probable cause, then they can get a warrant and arrest him.

If it's in the same county, the District Attorney could well combine all the charges into one case. If it's in different counties, the guy would have to have two trials -- one in each county where he committed the crimes.

By TiffanyN1025 — On Dec 19, 2012

If someone commits a crime against you and gets away with it, can you press charges when they are arrested for committing the same crime against someone else? For example, my husband, my son and I were pulled over a few months ago by someone impersonating a police officer.

The guy pulled a gun on us, said he was taking us to jail and took a lot of my husband's work equipment. When he let us go, we called the police to report it. They put out an APB on the car, but since we didn't have a name or license plate number, there wasn't much they could do.

On Saturday, he was arrested in a different town close by for committing the same crime against someone else. Can we go back and file charges against him so that it adds on to the time he serves and he pays for the trauma he caused to my family?

By anon293470 — On Sep 25, 2012

There has to be an initial showing of physical injury, or breach of the peace at whatever level. If one or the other is not present, then there is not sufficient evidence to bring charges.

If we could just run around saying we want to prosecute so and so, how could anybody establish any justice? Plus there would be a lot of justifiable lawsuits against D.A.s, that's for sure.

By anon288350 — On Aug 29, 2012

If my car was stolen and i know who it is, can they pay for the car that was taken from me, and can I get money for another car?

By Azuza — On Jun 19, 2011

@JessicaLynn - This is very true. I had a friend of mine press charges for theft against her son in the heat of the moment. Her son did commit the crime, but later she decided she wanted to handle it within the family. However, the state decided to proceed with the theft charges! Her son actually spent some time in jail and it was just overall a big mess for the family.

By JessicaLynn — On Jun 18, 2011

@EdRick - Also keep in mine that, like the article stated, once you file the police report pressing charges for assault it's basically out of your hands. So if you file the report and the state decides go go ahead and prosecute the case your son won't have the option to change his mind.

By SailorJerry — On Jun 18, 2011

@EdRick - All you have to do is call the police and they'll walk you through how to press charges from there. (It will probably start with filing a report.) Unless you need an ambulance (which you don't, since you're on your computer!), don't call 911. You can look up the police non-emergency number in the telephone book.

Don't be stunned if they don't decide to prosecute, especially if this happened a while ago. But even if they just question the other boy, that might put the fear of God into him, as my grandfather used to say.

By EdRick — On Jun 18, 2011

So what do you do if you want to, for instance, press charges for assault? My son was in an altercation with an older boy (over 18, so actually an adult) at a soccer game. The boy pushed him and spit in his face. I think the little punk needs to learn that he can't just do stuff like that, especially now that he's an adult.

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