Once the police have obtained adequate evidence through their investigation, the matter is given to the district attorney’s office. This office employs the lawyers for the state who are responsible for prosecuting charges against a defendant. This starts the “lawsuit” segment of a criminal investigation, placing the case in the hands of the court rather than law enforcement.
The investigating law enforcement officer will hand over the results of their investigation to the prosecuting attorney in the appropriate county. The county prosecutes all violations of state law. Law enforcement investigates both municipal infractions (violations of city ordinances) and state offenses. However, the district attorney’s office only prosecutes state felony and misdemeanor offenses whereas a city prosecutor will prosecute violations of city ordinances. Generally, charges are handled in the county where the alleged crime is thought to have occurred. The district attorney’s office will evaluate law enforcement’s investigation to decide if sufficient probable cause exists to file a criminal complaint. The complaint is the legal declaration which showcases the crime(s) the person of interest is accused to have committed.
The district attorney’s office will concurrently file the proper documents requesting a judge to issue an arrest warrant for the person of interest. Arrest warrants and search warrants are similar, but an arrest warrant names which person should be taken into custody by law enforcement. A district attorney cannot issue an arrest warrant without a judge first signing off on it. An arrest warrant without a judge’s signature is not effective. The district attorney will usually submit a written pleading which lays out the evidence obtained during law enforcement’s investigation in order to show probable cause. The burden of proof that the district attorney’s office has to meet here is very low as it only requires a “reasonable ground for belief of guilt,” as the Supreme Court held in Maryland v. Pringle. Most district attorneys will easily meet this threshold of showcasing probable cause and therefore succeed in obtaining an arrest warrant.
“Discretion to file” is a unique element of the United States’ criminal justice system, and it gives the capability to the prosecuting attorney’s office to refrain from filing otherwise permissible criminal charges. This capability is also titled “prosecutorial discretion.” The Kansas Court of Appeals held in State v. Cope that the district attorney “has sole discretion to determine whom to charge, what charges to file and pursue, and what punishment to seek.” Essentially, the district attorney is the only one who can decide whether or not to charge an individual with a crime.
Unfortunately, this authority can be abused. Identifying this, section 22-2301(2) grants the authority to judges to mandate prosecuting attorneys to commence criminal proceedings in “extreme cases.” Kansas law also permits a grand jury to file a criminal complaint itself and direct the prosecuting attorney’s office to proceed with charging an individual. The previous exceptions are rarely implemented. Normally, district attorneys will prosecute almost all of the alleged crimes presented to them. A case will be brought unless the evidence is overly insufficient and such insufficiency is evident from the law enforcement’s investigatory period.
From Suspect to Defendant
Upon criminal charges being filed, the person of interest is labeled a defendant. This is more than mere semantics; this label leads to severe ramifications for the suspect. A charge being filed reduces the number of avenues available to dispose of the case. There are differences between an investigation and a filed complaint. One difference is that a complaint conceives a criminal case that is then a matter of public record. Thus, any member of the public, including friends, employers, or family, can locate records of the suspect and the charges which were filed. Another difference is that upon a case being filed, it can be terminated in four ways: by the state, by the court, by a plea deal, or by a trial. Note, the defendant has no avenue of quickly terminating the case without using legal means to be granted a dismissal.
Limitations of Filing Charges
The more time which passes before a district attorney files charges, the more “stale” the case becomes. On example is that witnesses tend to move across the country, pass away, or lose their memory of the event. This delay in filing charges can hinder both the state and the defendant. Identifying this, Kansas has placed a statute of limitations for the majority of crimes. A statute of limitation is a time limit upon which a prosecuting attorney’s office can file a criminal complaint on an individual. If this time limit “expires,” the person of interest can no longer be prosecuted for that crime.
Kansas has no statute of limitations for murder. However, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prevents a district attorney from delaying charges in bad faith. For instance, imagine a woman suspected of murder, but law enforcement’s investigation unveils that four older acquaintances of the woman state she was with them when the homicide happened. The prosecuting attorney declines to file charges at that time. Twenty years pass and the last of the acquaintances passes away and on that day, the murder charge is filed against the woman, although no new evidence or information has been found on the case. The Due Process Clause would most likely prohibit the prosecution due to the district attorney clearly waiting for the accused’s defense to “go cold.”