Perhaps the most common question a criminal defense attorney receives from a client is: “how can we get my case dismissed?” It’s a fair question with an unsatisfying answer – unless the prosecution agrees to a dismissal for some reason, there are limited circumstances where a case will be dismissed prior to a trial date. A judge doesn’t have the authority to dismiss charges simply because it appears the Commonwealth has a weak case. Instead, there must be a legal defect in the prosecution’s case.
Most cases arrive in district court after a police officer files a report with the clerk’s office and asks for criminal charges to issue against the defendant. A clerk magistrate reviews the police report and if contains probable cause that the defendant has engaged in criminal behavior, a complaint will issue and he will be arraigned in court. However, if the clerk magistrate erroneously concludes the police report contains probable cause (when, in fact, probable cause is not present), the defendant can file a motion to dismiss the case prior to trial. The judge will read the police report and make an independent determination as to whether it contains probable cause that the defendant broke the law.
To prosecute a defendant in superior court, the prosecutor must first present the case to the grand jury. Witnesses will testify and grand jurors will determine if the Commonwealth has established probable cause to return an indictment, which will result in the defendant being arraigned in superior court. In rare cases, the grand jury returns an indictment against a defendant when probable cause has not been established. In these cases, the defendant will file a motion to dismiss and the judge will review the transcripts of the grand jury proceeding. If the witnesses did not establish probable cause, the case will be dismissed.
It is expected that the Commonwealth will act in good faith when presenting a defendant’s case to the grand jury. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. If a Commonwealth witness offers false testimony before the grand jury, the defendant can file a motion to dismiss the case. However, the defendant faces an uphill battle, as he needs to prove: (1) the witness knew his testimony was false (or showed reckless disregard for the truth); and (2) the false evidence probable influenced the grand jury’s decision to return an indictment against the defendant. Judges are reluctant to dismiss all but the most egregious cases.
If you are stopped for a motor vehicle infraction (including operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol), the police are ordinarily required to issue a citation to you immediately. Failure to do so presumptively mandates dismissal of the case. While there are some exceptions to the so-called no-fix statute, failure to receive a citation following a motor vehicle stop which results in a motor vehicle crime will often result in the dismissal of the case.
It is unconstitutional for the Commonwealth to prosecute a defendant if he has already been prosecuted (unless the previous prosecution resulted in a mistrial). A violation of the double jeopardy principle is grounds for pretrial dismissal.
Massachusetts criminal defendants are generally entitled to be brought to trial within one year of the arraignment. However, there are many exceptions to this rule and it is ordinarily difficult to win a dismissal.
Criminal cases are most often dismissed prior to trial when the Commonwealth’s case has been gutted by a judge’s decision to suppress evidence. For example, if a defendant is charged with illegally carrying a gun, but the police acted unconstitutionally in seizing the gun, a judge will prohibit the gun from being introduced into evidence. Without a gun to present to the jury, the prosecutor will be unable to prove the defendant’s unlawful possession and will be forced to dismiss the case.