Some members of the community have expressed concern over the number of declined cases, no-billed cases, and dismissals over the past several months. We would like to explain these to the community.
To the first question: Why do we decline cases?
Not everyone who is arrested and accused of a crime is actually guilty. While law enforcement does an excellent job, mistakes sometimes happen and the innocent sometimes end up accused. Our office rejects any case where we do not believe the accused to actually be guilty after we've thoroughly reviewed the evidence. It is our job to do justice, not seek convictions. Our office also rejects cases when there is a fatal flaw in the evidence or investigation which would make proving the crime beyond a reasonable doubt impossible.
To the second question: Why do cases get no-billed?
Once we decide that there is sufficient evidence and that the accused is indeed guilty of the offense alleged, we present the evidence to the grand jury. This is a group of people who speak for the community and act as the community's conscience. If the grand jury believes that pursuing a particular case would be unjust, then the grand jury will vote to no-bill that case, regardless of whether the person actually committed an offense. Again, just because we can technically prove someone guilty of a crime, this does not mean that it would serve justice for us to do so in every case. The grand jury acts as a check on the legal process, and we are grateful for their service.
To the third question: Why do we plea out so many cases?
The Criminal District Attorney's Office receives approximately 50 to 120 felony cases per month. That's an average of 600 to 1,440 felony cases per year. We have two courts which are legally authorized to hear these cases: the 13th District Court and the County Court at Law. These courts have the ability to conduct approximately 12 to 15 jury trials each per year, including civil lawsuits, Child Protective Services cases, and criminal trials. So between the two courts, we have the ability to take 24 to 30 cases to trial, out of the roughly 600 to 1,440 cases we receive from law enforcement each year.
We also receive approximately 150 class A and B misdemeanor cases per month (approximately 1,800 per year). We have two courts which are legally authorized to hear these cases: the County Court at Law and the Constitutional County Court. Unfortunately, the County Court at Law cannot realistically hear these cases because it is already booked with felony cases, which take priority. That leaves the Constitutional County Court to hear approximately 12 to 15 cases per year - which is roughly one out of every 100 cases filed.
With these numbers, the Criminal District Attorney's Office is only able to take a small percentage of cases to trial. We make plea offers in nearly every case. Obviously we want to focus on the more dangerous and violent crimes when pursuing people to a jury trial. While every defendant is entitled to his or her day in court, we would obviously rather juries hear the more serious cases such as homicide, sex crimes, assaults, burglaries, thefts, DWI, and drug dealing. We would rather not spend valuable jury trial time on low-level offenses such as small-time drug possession. Our plea offers typically reflect this case-prioritization.
To the final question: Why do we dismiss cases?
The reasons are varied. Sometimes new evidence will come to light which shows the defendant to be innocent. Sometimes new facts will arise which show that it would be unjust to pursue the case. Sometimes fatal flaws in the investigation will come to light after the case is filed. Sometimes a defendant will plea to one case in exchange for dismissing another. Often times, the defendant has evidence which proves his or her innocence, and they will give this evidence to their defense attorney (who in turn provides it to us), but they wouldn't give it to the police about it out of a misguided fear that the police would hide it.
Dismissals have increased since I took over as District Attorney because a few now-former employees were sitting on cases which had fatal flaws and needed to be dismissed. Once these employees were gone and other attorneys were able to review their case-load, these cases were discovered and properly dismissed.
We hope this little “glimpse behind the curtain” helps the public to understand why the District Attorney’s Office takes certain actions in certain cases. As always, we are here to do justice, not to merely seek convictions. Sometimes that means sending someone to prison. Sometimes that means putting someone on probation, or into drug treatment. But sometimes it means dismissing a case, or refusing to take the case from the outset.