As a criminal defense lawyer I meet daily with people charged with criminal offenses. These offenses ranging from relatively minor ones like shoplifting or driving with a suspended license, to more major offenses like sex crimes or violent assaults. Naturally, those hiring a lawyer are looking to minimize the legal consequences they face. I am regularly asked when a case could possibly be dismissed, and what event might lead to that.
Sometimes a client will ask if I can get a case dismissed, while it's still in an investigation stage with law enforcement. They are using the wrong term at this stage however, since a case has not been filed so there is no case to be dismissed. Instead of seeking to have a case dismissed at this stage, we are working to ensure they are never charged with a crime. We represent clients who are under investigation by law enforcement, and sometimes we can convince law enforcement not to charge them with a crime. Other times we are unable to convince law enforcement, but we are able to convince a prosecutor not to file criminal charges. Whether we convince law enforcement to never send a case for charging, or convince the prosecutor never to charge a case, this is the best possible outcome. This resolution will create very few public records and has less potential to be discovered by an employer or background check service.
Once a case is filed by the prosecutor's office there are several times a case can be dismissed. One would occur when a prosecutor was convinced that an injustice was occurring, and that the case should not have been charged, and they agree to make a motion to dismiss the case. Prosecutor's have an ethical duty to not proceed with a case against a defendant they believe to be innocent. We sometimes are able to convince a prosecutor that the case is not what it first appeared to be, and that the police got it wrong. In these situations the prosecutor will make a motion to the court to dismiss the case.
Another possible way to have a case dismissed would be to have a judge dismiss the case. Judges do not usually weigh the merits of the case prior to a trial, and have limited ability to dismiss a case. Most cases that are dismissed ore-trial by a judge are done as a result of a Knapstad motion. A Knapstad motion is filed by a defense attorney, and allows a judge to dismiss cases where the facts are undisputed, and where it is not possible for the prosecutor to make a prima facie case based upon those facts. For instance, if someone is charged with theft, but the facts don't allege that a theft occurred, a judge could dismiss the case. However, in the same fact pattern if the prosecutor had filed a statement by someone alleging facts that could be considered a theft, the judge could not just dismiss the case. It is rare for a judge to dismiss a case, as they generally would rather allow the trial to play out to completion and let the jury decide issues of fact.
The third way for a case to be dismissed, is for a judge or jury to dismiss the case after a trial. This is the most common method of dismissal that I see, and is called a "not guilty finding". When a judge or jury finds a defendant not guilty of the crime that they were charged with, the case is over. Technically it was never dismissed, it is just finally decided in a manner that is favorable for the client. Both the prosecutor and the defendant have a right to demand a jury trial, so it is usually decided by a jury of six to twelve persons, depending on the court. Occasionally the defense and prosecution will decide to let the judge decide the case, in what is called a bench trial, where the judge acts as the jury and decides guilt or innocence.
The final way for a case to be dismissed occurs after a trial. It is a dismissal by either the trial judge or appeals court, based on either the trial judge disregarding the jury's verdict, or the appeals court's finding of significant error during the trial.
There are a few other ways that cases are occasionally dismissed, but these make up the bulk of the dismissals that we see.