How to “Press Charges” on a Chicago Criminal Case

You’ve been the victim of a crime in Chicago and want to make sure that the responsible party is brought to justice. So, you contact the local Chicago Police District Station to make a report. Maybe they’ll send out a Chicago Police officer to take the report or depending upon the circumstances, the dispatcher may ask you to come into the station to make the report in person. What happens next can easily vary from police location to location and from officer to officer. In Chicago, initial reports can also be made online at https://home.chicagopolice.org/services/online-crime-reporting/.

On clearly serious criminal matters such as sexual assault, aggravated battery, domestic violence, drug offenses or a shooting, the Chicago Police will typically not only take a report but if possible, will make an immediate arrest of the accused if the facts seem straightforward enough and the offender can be promptly found and identified. If a police officer was a witness to the criminal or traffic offense, or was in fact the victim of the offense, an arrest will be immediately made as well. Other times, an investigation may be warranted and the case first assigned to an area police detective for further action and questioning of suspects or the accused before an arrest will be made.

What Does it Mean to Press Charges?

Many people believe that it your absolute right to “press charges” against another person and that if you go to the Police Department and report a crime, that criminal charges will be “pressed” or brought against the other party and they will be arrested. This could not be further from the truth. Although it’s true that anyone can make a “report” to the police, the police will usually decide whether further action will take place or whether your report will just be filed away never to be heard of again. If the police weren’t vested with this decision-making power to decide who should and who should not be arrested, the courts would be filled with sometimes crazy cases that would waste the time of judges.

This of course, makes some amount of sense. You wouldn’t want the police to come and arrest you just because your Ex went to the police and “pressed charges” for something that he or she made up or wasn’t even a crime in the first place. You would want the police to first evaluate the accusation and hopefully decide that no further action was warranted.

How Do Police Decide Whether to Press Charges?

But this police-power cuts both ways. Although it will often weed out the crazy cases that should never result in arrest, it can just as easily eliminate valid cases that really should be “pressed” and be sent to court. Every case deserves a thorough investigation to determine which path to take, but unfortunately this is not always the reality in Chicago and many other cities across Illinois. Some of the things that police will often consider (for better or worse) in making such a determination include:

  • How quickly the victim makes a report to the police – This may be a valid consideration in certain types of cases and not in others. In circumstances where physical evidence may have disappeared, the time lag in reporting may weaken a potential prosecution, whereas in other cases, there may be little effect at all. Police may of course consider a victim’s motives when time has passed from the offense to the reporting. But in certain cases, such as a rape/sexual assault, the police need to be understanding about why certain victims may not choose to report a crime immediately.
  • Who is more injured – On a great many of our battery and domestic violence cases, we hear that the police arrived at the scene, took a quick look to see who was more injured and then arrested the other person. This is inexcusable police work when it happens, because the degree of injury (although relevant) is by no means the barometer by which criminal liability should be measured. Who the aggressor was, the relative size of each person, witness statements and available video should all first be examined before a determination is made.
  • Who called the police first – Although who called the police first is relevant to any investigation, it’s probably the very least reliable gauge of who should be charged with a crime. Yet time and time again, we hear from clients who say that the police arrived on the scene of a fight and then said that they were considering the person who called 911 first to be the victim. What’s the lesson from this? Although it shouldn’t make much difference, it often does, so if you’re the victim of a crime, call the police immediately.
  • Preconceived prejudices, perceived attitudes and previous encounters – Police are people too and as such, they come with all sorts of baggage, good and bad. Although they’re supposed to be completely objective in their charging determinations, all sorts of things may unfortunately enter into an officer’s decision-making process from the citizen’s attitude to the color of their skin.

Police Must Have Approval for Felony Charges

Although police have the authority to charge citizens with traffic offenses and misdemeanor criminal offenses, felony cases are a different matter. If the police officer believes that a felony crime has been committed and enhanced charges are warranted, he or she must submit the information to the relevant county’s State’s Attorney’s Office for approval first. Generally, the police will contact the “Felony Review” section of the State’s Attorney’s Office, usually while the offender is still in custody. Then, whether by phone or in person, the officer will set out the facts and evidence that they believe warrant such a serious charge. The State’s Attorney may decide to speak to witnesses first or may make a determination solely based upon the information provided by the police. Although the prosecutor may decide that the facts do satisfy the requirements for a felony, he or she may also decide to withhold approval for any number of reasons, including the offender’s lack of previous criminal history.

Can the Officer’s Decision Whether to Charge be Challenged?

For the most part, police officers are given the discretion by their superiors about whether charges should be brought or not. But if you believe that you’ve been treated unfairly and the police are unreasonably refusing to bring charges, there are other steps that can be taken, which include:

  • Speak to the Police Commander or supervisor and set forth your concerns in a professional manner.
  • Go to the State’s Attorney’s Office for the county (such as the Cook County State’s Attorney), explain your concerns, and enquire whether they can intercede.
  • Depending on the nature of the concern, contact the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
  • If you truly believe that the decision was racially based, discriminatory or illegal in some manner, contact the relevant Police oversite board such as COPA (Civilian Office of Police Accountability) for Chicago cases.
  • In Chicago (but not in most other cities), a victim can go to the local Police District and “file charges” against another person for many misdemeanor charges, even though the police officer declined to do so previously. This will then generate a “summons” to the other party to appear in court on a future court date.

Representing Criminal Clients Since 1990

Speak to our experience legal team free of charge about any manner of criminal or traffic offenses by contacting us at (312) 644-0444. Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC has been helping people out of tough situations for over 30 years. Our office can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.