When police respond to a domestic violence call, they'll usually question the victim or witnesses to get their stories of what happened. Police may arrest the abuser and book them in jail. What happens then? Can the victim choose whether or not to press charges against the abuser? If the prosecutor charges the case, can the victim drop the charges? Here's the thing: It's not up to the victim.
Victims may call 911 hoping to stop the violence they are facing at that moment, but they don't want the full force of the law coming down on their abuser. If police arrest the abuser and the prosecutor files charges, the victim has no authority to drop charges against their abuser—be it their spouse, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, family member, or partner.
Criminal charging decisions don't rest with the victims; they rest with the government. Arrest decisions are made by the police officer, and prosecutors decide whether to file criminal charges. Much will depend on the circumstances of the incident, the state's laws, and local policies and procedures in domestic violence cases.
Some states' laws require police to arrest an alleged abuser and bring them to jail. These mandatory arrest policies and minimum jail holds (sometimes referred to as "cooling-off periods") kick in when police officers have probable cause to believe a suspect committed domestic violence. Even if state law doesn't have mandatory arrest policies, the responding police department might. Other jurisdictions have moved to pro-arrest policies that make arrests in domestic violence calls the preferred response, but not mandatory.
Despite what TV and movies portray, victims don't press or drop charges. Prosecutors make these decisions. Having a cooperative victim testify makes the prosecution's job easier, but prosecutors don't need the victim's ok or cooperation to go ahead with the case.
Some prosecutors' offices have adopted evidence-based prosecution policies, meaning prosecutors must evaluate whether they can prove the case without the victim's willingness to cooperate or testify. The prosecution will be looking at physical evidence collected, medical reports, eyewitness accounts, and a defendant's prior record. A state or local government might even have a "no-drop" policy in domestic violence cases, which requires prosecutors to pursue charges over the victim's objections.
The defendant might try to coerce or threaten the victim and demand that the victim recant (take back) their version of the events, refuse to testify, or request to drop the charges. Even if the defendant pressures the victim to do so, the prosecutor doesn't have to drop the charges—and probably won't. The prosecutor may decide to file additional charges, because threatening, coercing, and intimidating a witness is another crime. A defendant could also end up facing a no-contact order from the court.
While the prosecutor makes the charging decisions, victim input and safety are important in these cases. If you need help or assistance, reach out to a victim's advocate or consider hiring a family law attorney. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is another resource for those affected by domestic violence who need help and answers to questions.