There are many common misconceptions about law and the legal process that pop up in the public eye or mainstream media. For the most part, these are understandable, but can lead to serious misunderstandings. I would like to address some of these as they pop up here and there. Today, I’d like to look at pressing charges.
We often see reports saying that person A is pressing charges against person B, or signs in shops saying that they will press charges against any shoplifters. In terms of criminal charges, these are misguided. This thinking is perhaps a hangover from the times when prosecutions were brought by private individuals. With some exceptions*, most criminal prosecutions are brought by one body: the Crown Prosecution Service.
To use an example, let’s imagine that Fred Smith goes for a drink with his mate Dave Jones. After a drink or two, Fred and Dave begin to argue. Dave storms off to the toilet, leaving Fred on his own at the table, with Dave’s items on the table. Fred stands up, slips Dave’s expensive new phone into his pocket, and walks home before Dave returns. Dave returns to the table, realises his phone is gone, and reports it to the Police.
As it happens, this pub has CCTV inside and out. The report is assigned to an officer, who goes to the pub and watches the CCTV. This is of good quality, and clearly shows Fred stand up, slip the phone into his pocket and walk out.
The officer has now established what has happened. We know where the phone went, and how. The important issue now is why. There’s a reason for this. Every criminal offence contains points to prove. Theft is a pretty simple one: A theft occurs if a person dishonestly appropriates an item belonging to another, with the intention to permanently deprive that person of it. The offence is not complete until all of these criteria have been fulfilled. If the taking of the item is not dishonest, it’s not a theft. If the intention is not to permanently deprive, it’s not a theft.
Why is this? Well, there are a few reasons. Let us imagine that Fred wakes up the next day, calls Dave and says: “I’m sorry mate, I’ve got your phone. I never intended to keep it, I just wanted to annoy you for the night after we argued.” This could be construed as a prank, an intended annoyance between two friends who have temporarily fallen out. There is an important distinction to notice here: Fred is saying he never intended to keep the phone or keep it away from Dave. He claims he never intended to permanently deprive. Whether this is believed or not is a matter of perception, possibly to be decided by a court.
Now let’s imagine it slightly differently. On his way home, Fred flings the phone into the river, chuckling as he does so. Some people might consider that theft has no occurred, because Fred does not profit by it. This is not so. The phone has been dishonestly appropriated (he slipped it into his pocket when his friend was unaware), and Dave isn’t getting it back. The offence is complete.
Now let’s imagine a third option. Fred wakes up, realises he has the phone, and immediately calls Dave. He tells Dave he is sorry, that he was angry, and he will return the phone. He did intend to give the phone to his son, but thought better of it in the morning. Is the offence complete? Surely not, if Fred has now called in to offer the phone back? Well, it’s not quite that clear cut. If we accept that Fred did, when he pocketed the phone, intend to dispose of it, then at the time he took the phone the intention was to permanently deprive. The offence is complete. Whether charging him with the offence is in the public interest is a different matter that the CPS will have to consider.
But what does this have to do with who presses charges? Well, consider it a primer. Let’s say the last example is the one we’re working with. Let’s say that the report is made before Fred calls Dave to offer the phone back, and the report is allocated to PC Pelham. PC Pelham goes to the pub, watches the CCTV, and sees Fred pocket the phone before walking off. He updates Dave on the matter, who says he’s just had a voicemail from Fred, explaining how daft he feels, how he regrets it now, and he’ll be right round to drop off the phone. Dave explains to PC Pelham that he doesn’t want to press charges because Fred is his friend, and he’s got his phone back anyway.
This is where the fallacy is. If anyone is to press charges and take the matter to court, it will be the CPS. PC Pelham will provide the evidence to a CPS lawyer, who will decide if the charge is to be authorised. Dave would never have been the man to press the charge, so his desire to not do so is relatively immaterial.
Now, in this case, the CPS would very likely not authorise the charge. It is a minor offence, the victim does not wish to support a prosecution, and the phone is back with the owner. As well as deciding if the offence has been committed, the CPS must consider two other factors: Is there a realistic prospect of conviction, and would this be in the public interest? It could be argued that the answer to both of these questions is no. If Dave isn’t willing to say Fred stole his phone in court, there are obvious problems.
So why is this the case? Why does the victim not get the ultimate say in whether charges are brought? Well, there are some sound reasons for this. Let’s imagine a domestic violence victim. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the victim is female, and the abuser is her male partner.**
One night, Mr Bloggs kicks Mrs Bloggs down the stairs. He’s a nasty piece of work, and Mrs Bloggs has nowhere else to go. She doesn’t report it, but the hospital are concerned, and they tell the Police about her injuries. The Police arrive and speak to Mrs Bloggs on her own, not in the presence of Mr Bloggs. Mrs Bloggs breaks down, and admits to years of abuse.
Now, in this situation, what do you think happens if Mrs Bloggs has the final say on whether charges are levelled against her husband? Mr Bloggs waits until she is released, grabs her by the throat, and makes it perfectly clear what will happen if the charges aren’t dropped. He never gets to court, the cycle repeats, and eventually we’re at Mrs Bloggs’ graveside. If we’re lucky, Mr Bloggs is in cuffs, but it’s not likely. However, if the onus is taken away from Mrs Bloggs, and the charging decision made by a third party, the only thing left to consider is whether there is a realistic chance of convicting Mr Bloggs. He knows that threatening Mrs Bloggs won’t affect that decision.
Whether or not the CPS always get those decisions about whether to charge or not correct is a different matter, but it is plain to see that the reasons for the decision resting with a third party are sound.
*There are some other bodies that can bring criminal prosecutions, such as Trading Standards, HMRC and others. I’m restricting this to the example of the CPS, purely to make it clear that criminal proceedings are brought by a body, rather than individuals or victims.
** This is the majority of cases, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the exclusive scenario. Men are abused by women, and same sex relationships aren’t exempt either.