No such thing as "pressing charges" in Iowa

January 26, 2018



What does it mean to “press charges” or “drop the charges” in Iowa?   I frequently hear prospective clients say that the police gave an alleged crime victim the option of “pressing charges” or, at the very least, asked that alleged victim whether he or she wanted to “press charges.”


This phrase has taken on almost talismanic significance with the better part of a century of radio and television treatment of law enforcement subject matter. The lexicon of police jargon contains not only the familiar Miranda warning but also the even more familiar tagline, “do you want to press charges?”  


Unlike Germany, where crime victims have achieved a special status as “private accessory prosecutor,” or, Nebenkläger,  see MEASURES TO PROTECT VICTIMS IN GERMAN CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS A SUMMARY WITH SPECIAL FOCUS ON THE KEY POINTS OF  THE SECOND VICTIMS’ RIGHTS REFORM ACT by Martina Peter, and even have access to court-appointed counsel for the purpose of vindicating victims’ rights, the State of Iowa affords victims only the statutory right to be present at sentencing, to make a special statement without cross-examination, and for certain child victims to have access to a guardian ad litem if they are under age and need special protections per the judge in the case. See Iowa Code § 915.1 et seq.   


In short, victims are mere witnesses in a prosecution that is entitled “State of Iowa vs. John Q. Public,” Not “Crime Victim vs. John Q. Public,” and so the decision to offer concessions begins with police officers and travels up the chain to prosecutors who must use their legal talents to determine if the facts of an investigation meet the definition of a crime under Iowa law.


Prosecutors may use their considerable discretion to craft plea agreements or choose not to file charges where evidence is weak and may take into consideration the wishes of alleged victims.


Where a prosecutor disagrees with a crime victim, they may do as they see fit.   Often a letter of support by a crime victim will say, “I don’t want to press charges” but this decision is not up to the alleged victim.


That’s why it is still mind boggling to me that I hear witnesses and defendants say, “well, the officer asked whether I wanted to press charges.”   This phrase has no place in Iowa law. It is merely the officer attempting to gauge whether the fallout of leaving without making an arrest will satisfy a potential crime victim. In that way, the officer has empowered the crime victim without specific authority to do so, or perhaps does not want to make an arrest if the facts are on the edge of what may be acceptable to a prosecutor and a judge.  


In domestic assaults, an officer has a duty to make an arrest if they ascertain that their has been such an assault, determine who the primary aggressor is, and then make that arrest. Even so, I have heard the same “press charges” commentary in domestic situations. I wasn’t there so I don’t know if it really happened but I’ve heard it frequently enough that I believe it to be so.   If you or a loved one has been arrested for a crime in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Anamosa, Vinton, Marengo, or other Iowa cities, as well as  Linn, Johnson, Benton, Jones, Iowa, or other counties, please contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC at 319-389-1889, for a free initial consultation.   A blog is not legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading a blog or by sending unsolicited information to an attorney over the Internet.

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