Yesterday, I had several people call and speak with me about several cases that were reported in the paper as dismissed recently. Initially, I couldn’t think of what I might have done to cause an unusual amount of dismissals. Then, I recalled that I had, in recent months, reviewed several dozen old cases that had been on what is called, “warrant status”. No, the Christmas spirit hasn’t got the best of me. When it comes to crime I’m still a Scrooge.
From time to time the Court will send me a packet of cases that are on “warrant status”. I then have one of two decisions to make: (1) Keep the case on warrant status, or (2) dismiss the case. ”Warrant Status” means that an offender was scheduled to make a court appearance, did not appear, and the Judge issued a warrant for their arrest.
If a case can be proven (e.g. witnesses and cops who investigated the matter are still alive and accessible, reports still exist, victims can be located, etc.) and there is a reasonable chance the offender may one day step foot in Minnesota (and for most Gross Misdemeanors and Felonies–a reasonable chance they might return to the United States), then the matter remains on warrant status. If it can’t be proven or the offender is not likely to return (e.g. they were deported) or they are no longer among the living, then the matter is dismissed. I have yet to prosecute a dead person. I find it distasteful. And I’m not going to ask the tax payers to pay to extradite a person from say, Honduras, for a traffic offense from five or ten years ago.
That said, some offenses could stay on warrant status for the offenders entire life–so long as the case if provable. If there’s a reasonable chance an offender might return (e.g. they live in the U.S. or they have family or friends here) even minor offenses might continue to remain on warrant status.
As I recently told the Stevens County Board of Commissioners in a presentation I gave to them, this job is not just solely about seeking convictions. In fact, the Lawyers Professional Rules of Conduct specifically state for prosecutors, “The prosecutor in a criminal case shall…refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause.” Minn. R. Prof. Conduct 3.8. In the comment section to that rule it states a prosecutor is a “…minister of justice and not simply…an advocate.”
I take that obligation very seriously. In fact, I set the bar a little higher. A wise prosecutor once told me that she only charged cases that could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. She did so because in the end the Judge or Jury making the choice between “guilty” or “not guilty” has to measure the evidence against that standard, and not probable cause, which is a lesser standard. Thus, while a prosecutor can charge based on probable cause, I’ve always felt that it’s not fair to subject a person to criminal charges unless I feel at the time of charging that a Judge or jury could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
From time to time you might see several more dismissals reported in the paper than you’re usually accustomed to seeing. However, since I just recently did a warrant review, it may be a year or two until you see it again. If you see that the date of the offense is from several years ago, a decade ago, or several decades ago, the reason for dismissal is that a case that was on “warrant status” has been reviewed and is no longer prosecutable. If it’s a newer case, the reason is most likely a lack of evidence.