When a party brings a case into court, a judge will either hear the matter or dismiss it.
If a judge does not agree to hear the case, a dismissal removes the matter from the court’s schedule. A judge can dismiss a case for a number of reasons and in a few different ways. Most commonly, a judge will dismiss a case, either “with prejudice” or “without prejudice.” These terms are important because they can determine what can happen next.
Dismissal with Prejudice
We often use the word “prejudice” to refer to a hostile or biased position. In legal terms the word “prejudice” has a different (but related) meaning. Legally speaking, “prejudice” refers to damage to a plaintiff’s legal claim. When a judge dismisses a case “with prejudice” the plaintiff’s case is legally damaged, and the plaintiff loses the right to continue seeking relief. The plaintiff also loses the right to bring the case back to court for additional consideration.
A dismissal with prejudice ends a case permanently. In a criminal case, this kind of dismissal prevents the prosecutor from refiling the same charges against a defendant using the same evidence. A dismissal with prejudice goes beyond simply stopping a case from moving forward. In this case, the judge has seen a reason to prevent the matter from returning to court.
In civil court, a judge will want to prevent a ridiculous or “frivolous” lawsuit from returning for consideration. If the parties reach a settlement outside of court, the court will issue a dismissal with prejudice to prevent the parties from asking the court to hear their cases later. In a criminal court, a judge can dismiss a case with prejudice, for example, when false accusations and lingering suspicions may do harm to the defendant’s reputation or position in the community. A judge can also decide that his or her particular court lacks the authority to listen to the matter that the plaintiff or prosecutor has filed. Likewise, a judge can decide that the plaintiff or prosecutor does not have the right to bring a particular matter to a judge.
Dismissal with prejudice does not prevent the prosecutor or plaintiff from appealing the dismissal to a higher court, opening a new case against a person by filing different charges or taking the matter to a different court.
Dismissal Without Prejudice
Dismissal without prejudice means that the judge dismissed the plaintiff’s or prosecutor’s case without damaging their right to have their matter heard in court later.
A prosecutor may ask to withdraw the case against a person to have more time to make a case stronger, find more evidence or question other witnesses. Likewise, a prosecutor may decide to charge a person differently (with either more or less serious accusations) based on a change in circumstances. For example, if a person beats another person very severely, the prosecutor may file assault charges against the aggressor. If the victim later dies, the prosecutor may want to drop the assault charges in favor of a murder charge.
A dismissal without prejudice does not change other controlling factors, like the statute of limitations. If the prosecutor or plaintiff plans to refile a case, the original statute of limitations still applies.
The party that filed the case can seek a voluntary dismissal. A prosecutor or plaintiff may decide that pursuing a matter in court is not the best course of action. In this case, the judge can dismiss the case with or without prejudice, even though the prosecutor or plaintiff voluntarily asks to drop the case.
A judge can choose to dismiss a case over the objections of a prosecutor or plaintiff, when there is a good reason to remove the case from court. As with voluntary dismissals, the judge can issue an involuntary dismissal either with or without prejudice.
For example, if a judge finds errors in the way a prosecutor has filed a case, he or she can involuntarily dismiss the case without prejudice. This will give the prosecutor an opportunity to “fix” the mistakes that affected the original case. Likewise, if the prosecution is not ready to try a case on its scheduled date, a judge can dismiss the charges involuntarily, and allow the prosecutor to have more time to prepare. Typically, judges issue dismissals without prejudice to suit the needs of the prosecutor or the plaintiff.
A judge might issue an involuntary dismissal with prejudice if he or she believes that something is seriously wrong with the prosecutor’s case. If the prosecutor offers faked evidence, or filed a case simply to harass the defendant, the judge may choose to dismiss the case with prejudice. Likewise, if the prosecutor has repeatedly asked for delays and dismissals without prejudice, but does not address the problems with the case, the judge may choose to permanently terminate the matter.
If you have questions about a Ventura County criminal case against you or a family member, don’t hesitate to call the Law Offices of Robert M. Helfend at (805) 273-5611 for an immediate consultation.