What Is A Motion To Dismiss In A Criminal Case?

What Is A Motion To Dismiss In A Criminal Case?

A motion to dismiss is a common motion in civil and criminal cases. In both types of cases, it basically asks the court to throw the case out. So, in a criminal case, a motion to dismiss asks the court to dismiss the charges against you.

You can file a motion to dismiss very early in a case, shortly before trial or even during trial.

Why would a defendant in a criminal case file a motion to dismiss?

There are many reasons why a defendant might file a motion to dismiss in a criminal case. Frankly, some attorneys seem to file them in every case no matter whether they think they’ll win or lose.

Filing a motion to dismiss for the sake of doing so usually won’t help. But there are a few common arguments that could help win a motion to dismiss.

Statute of Limitations

Under federal law and most states’ laws, prosecutors face time limits for bringing certain criminal charges. These time limits are called statutes of limitations.

For instance, if a criminal charge has a five-year statute of limitations, prosecutors must charge you within five years after the crime allegedly happened. If prosecutors don’t bring the charge in time, you can move to dismiss based on the statute of limitations.

If you prove too much time has passed, the court must dismiss the case.

Image courtesy of John Rehg via iStock by Getty Images.

Jurisdiction Issues

In addition to time limitations, prosecutors also face place limitations. A defendant can only be charged in a court that has lawful jurisdiction over the case. In many cases, this depends on where the crime allegedly occurred.

A simple example is a crime that occurs on federal land. If that happens, federal prosecutors, not state prosecutors, must charge the crime. And a state judge must oversee the trial.

Like with the time limit, if a court doesn’t have jurisdiction, it must dismiss the case.

A Lack of Evidence

Finally, defendants may move to dismiss if they believe there isn’t enough admissible evidence for the case to go forward.

Every crime is made up of “elements.” For instance, the crime of assault has three elements:

  • an act by the defendant
  • that the defendant intends to cause the victim to fear imminent harmful contract and
  • that actually causes the victim to reasonably fear such contact.

If the prosecutor can prove it’s more likely than not that all three happened, the case goes to trial. But if the prosecutor can’t, you can move to dismiss the case. If the court grants your motion, the court does so based on “insufficient evidence.”

Image courtesy of Prathaan on iStock Photos.

How often do federal and state courts agree to dismiss a case?

While a lot of civil cases are dismissed, courts don’t grant motions to dismiss in criminal cases a lot. This is, in part, because not many cases make it that far. Instead, according to the Pew Research Center, around 90% of criminal cases end in plea deals.

The Takeaway:

In a criminal case, you can file a motion to dismiss to ask the court to throw the case out. These motions can argue that the prosecutor charged you too late, that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction, that the prosecutor can’t present enough evidence and many other things. But, if the court grants it, the charges against you are dropped. Unfortunately, courts don’t grant motions to dismiss in criminal cases very often.

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