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How Federal Defense Lawyers Use Motions to Dismiss Criminal Charges


Defense lawyers have several tools at their disposal to get criminal charges against their clients dismissed before a case goes to trial. Filing a motion to dismiss is one of the most common and effective ways a federal defense lawyer can attempt to end a client’s criminal case early on.

Motions to dismiss aim to convince the judge that there are legal deficiencies with the prosecution’s case that warrant dismissing charges against the defendant. If a judge grants a motion to dismiss, the criminal case ends without the defendant going to trial or entering a guilty plea.

There are several grounds on which a federal defense lawyer may base a motion to dismiss criminal charges against their client. Understanding these various arguments can help defendants better comprehend their defense strategy.

Statute of Limitations Expired

One of the most straightforward arguments a federal defense attorney can make in a motion to dismiss is that the statute of limitations for the alleged crime has expired. Federal and state laws put time limits on how long prosecutors have to charge someone for a particular offense.

For example, the statute of limitations for most federal felonies is five years. So if a prosecutor tries to charge someone with bank robbery eight years after the crime occurred, the defense lawyer could file a motion to dismiss since the charging deadline has passed. The type of crime determines the statute of limitations period.

Errors in Filing the Complaint

Prosecutors must follow strict protocols when formally charging defendants. The initial complaint or indictment must clearly state what crime the defendant allegedly committed and the justification for the charges.

If the original charging paperwork fails to adhere to proper procedures, defense lawyers can argue the prosecution’s mistakes invalidate the charges. For instance, if the complaint does not specify what statute the defendant violated, the defense might convince the judge to dismiss the charges rather than let the prosecution refile a corrected complaint.

Lack of Jurisdiction

Another straight-forward ground for dismissal is lack of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the authority of a court to hear a criminal case. Typically, only the state or district where an alleged crime occurred has jurisdiction to try the case.

So if someone gets charged with a federal crime in a state where the supposed offense did not happen, the defense lawyer could successfully argue that the court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case.

Insufficient Evidence

One of the most common and effective bases for dismissal is arguing the prosecution lacks sufficient evidence to support the criminal charges. The motion essentially alleges that even if the prosecutor’s version of events were 100% true, the facts do not amount to a crime under the law.

Defense lawyers may also argue there is not enough evidence to prove their client committed the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. By convincing the judge the prosecution’s case is too weak to warrant a trial, the defense can get charges dismissed without putting on their own case.

Violations of Constitutional Rights

Motions to dismiss often claim investigating officers violated the defendant’s constitutional rights when gathering evidence or making an arrest. If police conduct searches without probable cause or coerce confessions, defense lawyers can move to suppress that tainted evidence.

Without critical evidence, prosecutors may lack what they need to move forward with charges. Rather than proceed to trial with a gutted case, dismissing charges entirely is sometimes the best option if a judge grants a motion to suppress.

Selective or Vindictive Prosecution

Less common grounds for dismissal argue that prosecutors singled out defendants for unfair reasons or brought charges to retaliate against them for exercising legal rights. These “selective prosecution” and “vindictive prosecution” claims assert that the decision to charge someone stemmed from intentional discrimination or desire to punish them extrajudicially.

If defense lawyers can show charging decisions arose from prosecutorial bad faith rather than the facts, they may convince judges to dismiss cases to deter such misconduct. However, the evidentiary burdens make these arguments harder to prove than claims of insufficient evidence or constitutional violations.

What Happens After Filing for Dismissal?

The first step after defense counsel files a motion to dismiss is for federal prosecutors to submit a written opposition explaining why they believe the court should deny the motion. The defense then has a chance to file a reply countering the government’s arguments.

Most judges decide dismissal motions on the briefs alone. But sometimes courts hold oral arguments where both sides’ lawyers appear in court to advocate their positions before the judge issues a ruling.

If granted, dismissal ends the case permanently unless prosecutors appeal the ruling. If denied, the case continues towards trial or a guilty plea. But even in that scenario, filing the motion can provide critical insight into the prosecution’s approach and help the defense formulate trial strategy.


Motions to dismiss are invaluable tools federal defense attorneys use to end unjust or unfounded criminal prosecutions before they progress further. Although standards vary between jurisdictions, lawyers can often find grounds to argue charges are defective, lack evidentiary support, or resulted from misconduct.

Successfully convincing a judge to dismiss a case saves defendants from the pressures of trial and lengthy prison sentences. And even where courts deny the motions, the effort still produces helpful information while showcasing the defense’s strongest arguments to prosecutors. So filing dismissal motions constitute an important early stage of federal criminal litigation.

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