What Happens to a Felony Charge on a Dismissed Case?

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When a district attorney dismisses a felony case, it is almost invariably good news for the defendant. However, when a prosecutor drops the case by entering a "nolle prosequi," a formal notice in the court records that the office does not intend to continue the prosecution, it does not always mean that the case is gone forever.

What Is a Felony?

Crimes generally fall into one of three categories: infraction, misdemeanors and felonies. Infractions are issued for relatively small matters like speeding tickets. Misdemeanors are lesser crimes, defined as crimes punishable by no more than a year in jail. Felonies are more serious crimes.

Although the police investigate crimes and make arrests, it is the district attorney's office that makes the decision to file criminal charges. The attorneys in the DA's office also prosecute criminal cases and make decisions during a case about dismissal of charges.

Why Are Felony Charges Dismissed?

A prosecutor with the district attorney's office will only file criminal charges if she believes that she can prove the case. She reviews the investigation file compiled by law enforcement and considers the criminal history of the suspect. The evidence gathered must be strong enough to convince a jury that the defendant committed the felony charged.

If, at any point after criminal charges are filed, the prosecutor determines that the evidence is not strong enough to convince a jury of the charges, she can dismiss the case. A judge can also order a dismissal on the defendant's motion to dismiss (usually after the prosecutor rests her case) if it is clear to the court that there is not enough evidence to convict.

What is a Nolle Prosequi?

In some states, the prosecutor can drop charges against a criminal suspect by entering a "nolle prosequi." In Latin, this means "decline to prosecute." This operates differently depending on the jurisdiction. In Connecticut, a nolle occurs when a Connecticut prosecutor drops a misdemeanor or felony charge before filing it.

Under Connecticut law, a nolled case is deemed dismissed 13 months after the nolle date but can be re-opened for any reason within that period. It stays on the record of the accused until it is dismissed. It is not an acquittal, which would prohibit the prosecution from retrying the person based on principles of double jeopardy. At least when nolle occurs before trial, the decision of whether to re-prosecute is in the hands of the district attorney.

What Happens When a Felony Case Is Dismissed?

A felony case can be dismissed by motion of the prosecutor, the defendant's attorney or the court. This is usually done when the evidence appears insufficient to prosecute. Other ways for a defendant to get a felony charge dismissed is to go through trial and obtain a "not guilty" verdict or to attend a pretrial diversionary program.

However, dismissals can also be entered for more technical matters. For example, a trial court can grant a dismissal of a felony charge for procedural errors and defects. If, for instance, the prosecution is not able to establish that a court has jurisdiction over a defendant, the case must be dismissed. Likewise, the court can dismiss a case when the prosecutor has delayed the trial so long that it violates the defendant's right to a speedy trial.

If the court dismisses the case on the defendant's motion for reasons other than sufficiency of the evidence, the prosecutor can file the case again. Double jeopardy is not triggered if the dismissal is for reasons unrelated to the defendant's guilt or innocence. However, a dismissal with prejudice means the prosecution does not have the legal right to refile charges.