People often wonder why one person might face a criminal charge for an act while another person just gets a warning. In some cases, the answer to this is prosecutorial discretion. This power enables prosecutors and police officers to have discretion when they are interacting with potential defendants.
There are several areas in which prosecutorial discretion applies. Understanding what this means and how it impacts various cases might be beneficial.
At the time of a traffic stop
When you are pulled over during a traffic stop or have an interaction with police officers, they often have the ability to decide whether to arrest you and charge you with a crime or to let you go with a warning. There are some limitations. For example, if you are accused of murder and the officer has information that meets the legal criteria to arrest you, they won't be able to let you go.
When determining a charge
The prosecutor who is given a case can determine what to do with it. They might decide to charge the person, but they can also decide that a charge isn't appropriate. If they decide to charge the defendant, they have to determine the most appropriate option for doing so. They have to look into the legal criteria for charges that fit the situation and determine which one is the best option.
While negotiating a plea deal
Prosecutors sometimes work with defense attorneys to get plea deals in place. These help to free up the court docket while enabling people who admit they committed crimes to receive a sentence. One of the possible plea deal points is a lesser charge. Prosecutorial discretion allows them to do this so that they can enter into these agreements.
Issues with this power
Prosecutorial discretion can be misused. The power is broad, and some people might not understand the method of thought behind the prosecutor's decisions. Prosecutors must ensure that their choices comply with the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.
Defendants who are facing charges should find out as much as they can about the case against them. This can give them information they need to start working on their defense strategy. Prosecutorial misconduct might be a component if there is a violation of the Constitution, but it is always best to develop a comprehensive strategy.