Deciding whether to "press charges" for theft, assault, or any other crime falls to the prosecutor (the lawyer for the government), not the victim. Victims play an important role in the charging process by calling the police, filing police reports, and cooperating (or not) with the criminal investigation. But reporting the crime or filing a police report is not the same as pressing charges.
Many victims mistakenly believe that they decide the fate of a criminal case by deciding whether or not to press charges against the suspect. Despite what TV and movies portray, the prosecutor—not the victim—makes the decision to pursue and file criminal charges based on the evidence, anticipated victim cooperation, and other factors, such as the priorities and resources of the prosecuting agency.
Generally, a victim contacts police or files a police report describing the crime. At this point, the police and prosecution take over. They may seek the victim's cooperation and assistance in the criminal investigation, but it's not up to the victim to decide if the suspect should be arrested and charged.
Depending on the circumstances, a victim might want the suspect charged immediately or not want the suspect charged at all. While a victim's actions and level of cooperation might help or hinder the case, circumstances beyond the victim's control also play a role.
Victims might contact the police to report a crime and expect the suspect to be arrested and prosecuted immediately. This situation could occur if the police arrive at the scene during the commission of the crime. But it's also common for the police to need time to gather evidence and seek a warrant for the suspect's arrest (assuming probable cause exists.) In either case, the prosecutor must review all the evidence and information and decide whether they can prove all the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. A prosecutor may decline to file criminal charges even over the victim's objections. For the most part, neither the courts nor another prosecution office will second guess the prosecutor's decision to charge or not charge. And victims cannot shop around for another prosecutor to take the case.
In some cases, a victim might not immediately contact the police to report a crime, especially if the perpetrator is a family member. Cases involving domestic assault or theft by a family member often go unreported for many reasons. But a victim's unwillingness to report the crime doesn't mean it will go unnoticed. A witness to the crime might report it or call 911. Police called to the scene or notified of the incident will need to file a report. Prosecutors often face uncooperative or reluctant victims when the crime involves domestic violence. While the case could be more difficult to prove, the prosecutor can move forward without the victim's testimony if enough evidence exists to support and prove the charges, such as recordings of 911 calls, hospital reports, pictures of injuries, and witness testimony.
The decision of whether to file a police report can also surface if the crime leads to a civil lawsuit or insurance claim. For instance, if a theft or burglary victim files an insurance claim for stolen property or property damage, the insurance company will likely request (and may even require) a copy of the police report. In assault cases, a victim might want to file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator for reimbursement of hospital bills. In both instances, filing a police report (sooner rather than later) can assist in the civil claim or case. But a victim cannot file a police report for the sake of prevailing in a civil claim and then expect the prosecutor to refrain from pressing criminal charges based on the victim's request.
Prosecutors stand in the position of seeking justice, not just convictions, and must weigh practical, legal, and ethical decisions when making charging decisions. These responsibilities serve as checks to protect citizens from abuse of police powers and vengeful charges. Even once the prosecution makes a neutral decision to press charges, a judge or grand jury must also sign off for the criminal case to go forward. While a prosecutor's decision won't always align with a victim's wishes, the victim can respectfully request to confer with the prosecutor. In some states, the victim has a right to confer with the prosecution and be informed of decisions regarding charges, dismissal of charges, and plea agreements. The right to confer does not mean the right to control, but it may provide an avenue to understanding why and how decisions are made.
If you have questions about your rights as a victim in the criminal justice process, contact an attorney or victim's rights organization in your city, county, or state.