What Happens When a Complaining Witness or Alleged Victim Does Not Want to Pursue Charges?

Wooden gavel on table close up.

Typically, there are two ways that a criminal case is initiated once someone is accused of a crime. A member of law enforcement may sign a criminal affidavit. Other times, a complaining witness or alleged victim completes the affidavit. Both routes lead to charges being pressed on the person accused of committing the crime, whether it is for a misdemeanor or a felony. In many cases, though, it is not unusual for a complaining witness or alleged victim to change their mind, recant their statement, and decide they no longer wish to pursue criminal charges against the defendant. What happens to the case then?

The answer to pretty much every legal question is “it depends,” and the answer to this question is no different. First, it depends on whether the case is a misdemeanor or a felony. If the case is a misdemeanor case in justice or city court, oftentimes the complaining witness or alleged victim will just need to tell the prosecutor or judge that they no longer wish to pursue the charges. Depending on the situation, specifically, if the complaining witness or alleged victim was the one who pressed charges (not law enforcement), the complaining witness may need to pay a small administrative fee.

If an alleged felony has been committed, the answer is more complicated. If a defendant has not had their preliminary hearing or has been bound over to the grand jury, then a complaining witness’s statement to the court that they do not wish to pursue charges, whether on the record or by affidavit, may carry significantly more weight. What often happens, though, is that a complaining witness waits until after a defendant is indicted to decide that they no longer wish to move forward. The problem with that is that post-indictment, the decision to dismiss or drop a case rests largely with the State (District Attorney) at that point.

That’s not to say that a complaining witness or victim still does not have a voice. Mississippi has a victim’s bill of rights, and as part of that, the District Attorney must keep the person aware of everything that is going on in the case and should also take that person’s wishes into account. Whether a DA will honor the person’s position typically hinges on the strength of the case. If there is significant evidence against a defendant, then the State may try to get away with not using the complaining witness. The problem with the State taking that route is a complaining witness or victim is considered an essential witness, which means that the State runs the risk of violating a defendant’s constitutional rights. Another option for the State is to subpoena the complaining witness and force them to appear in court and therefore must testify. This can lead to the complaining witness becoming completely uncooperative. Either situation is a risk for the State but creates an opportunity for the defense to seek a dismissal or other favorable resolution.