When you are charged with a crime, your case enters the criminal court system. It will remain pending until it reaches a disposition. When your case is disposed, it is finished and removed from the court's docket. There are many ways to dispose of a case. The common reasons include a dismissal, a guilty plea, or a finding of guilty or not guilty at trial by either a judge or jury.
What Does It Mean When a Case is Dismissed?
After reviewing your case, either before it goes to court or in court, the prosecutor or the judge may decide to dismiss it. This usually happens because some evidence is lacking; for example, if the arresting or ticketing officer fails to appear at your hearing. With a minor charge like a traffic ticket, if the cop fails to show up, the judge may choose the throw out or dismiss your case. Don't expect to get a dismissal on that basis for serious charges, however. If you're up for reckless driving, for instance, and the arresting officer is unable to appear at the hearing, the judge is more likely to grant the prosecutor a continuance, which assigns a new court date instead. Even if the officer is available, the prosecutor might also determine that the other evidence against you is insufficient to prove your guilt at trial; he may discover that your breathalyzer results are missing, for instance, and may decide not to proceed.
In some cases, your attorney may challenge your arrest, such as because authorities allegedly violated your Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches and seizures. If the judge rules you were arrested or searched illegally after a hearing and suppresses evidence the prosecution needs to prove its case against you, the prosecutor will likely dismiss your case if this leaves him with insufficient other evidence against you.
Is a Case Disposed When You Enter a Guilty Plea?
Guilty pleas often follow negotiated plea deals between your attorney and the prosecutor. In some cases, the judge may also be involved in this process. In a plea agreement, you agree to plead guilty to a charge in exchange for a specific sentence. Sentences range from court supervision to probation to jail or prison time. In many cases, the prosecution reduces the charge against you as an enticement for you to plead guilty. If you accept a plea deal, your case is disposed.
Read More: How to Write a Plea Letter
What Does Disposed Mean at Trial?
As a criminal defendant, you have the right to a trial where the prosecution must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Depending on the nature of your case, you may have the choice between a jury trial, where the facts are decided by a jury, or a bench trial, where the judge alone decides the verdict. If you are found guilty, your case moves to the sentencing phase where the judge will hand down your punishment. After sentencing is complete, the case is finally disposed. If you are found not guilty at the trial, then your case is removed from the court's docket and is disposed there and then.
What Happens After the Case is Disposed?
If you plead guilty or were convicted of a crime, this does not necessarily mean you have a permanent criminal record. In some cases and after a waiting period, you may be able to have arrests and convictions for minor crimes expunged or sealed. Expungement usually means that your case is erased from the records of the criminal justice system as if it never happened. If your case is sealed, it still exists in the system, but the information cannot be publicly accessed during a background check, for example. Law enforcement can usually still access it, however.
Marcus Schantz is an author and licensed attorney based in Chicago. He holds a Juris Doctor from the Northern Illinois University College of Law, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology and microbiology from the University of Texas at Austin.