While the number of serious crimes committed in the state has fallen to the lowest number since 2014, the number of cases where the state decided not to prosecute someone who was arrested with probable cause doubled from 595 to 1189 between 2019 and 2021, according to the South Dakota State Crime Reports for those years.
For some number of arrestees to go uncharged is not abnormal. After someone is arrested by police for being suspected of committing a crime, a prosecutor working for the state must decide whether or not to bring criminal charges against them. If the prosecutor decides that there isn’t enough evidence to secure a conviction, they may decide not to bring charges at all.
“An officer may decide that there’s sufficient evidence to make an arrest and proceed with a criminal case, but the prosecutor may have a different opinion based on his legal training which is significantly more extensive than our certified law enforcement officers,” said Jim Miskimins, Davison County State’s Attorney.
But when they decide not to bring charges for any reason other than a lack of evidence, the case is known to be “cleared exceptionally.” This can be because the offender died before charges are filed, because a victim doesn’t want charges to be brought against the offender, or for any other reason.
According to Lara Roetzel, State Attorney for Pennington County, many of these cases that go unprosecuted are due to what she calls “judicial economy,” or a desire not to waste the very limited resources of the judicial system on unnecessary charges.
“By the time someone has got through that first-offense methamphetamine case, they’ve picked up between 5 and 8 more methamphetamine cases from drug tests during the process,” Roetzel said. “What my office has started doing is saying ‘let’s stop the madness.’”
Rather than charging a defendant with 9 methamphetamine charges, Roetzel said she may only pursue one or two and use the rest as leverage to get an agreement from the defendant to adhere to their probation and treatment programs. However, drug crimes only account for around 25% of the cases that went unprosecuted in 2021.
Half of the other crimes are minor. Around a third of them are for simple assault or intimidation, which can cover anything from a drunken shove in a bar to verbal harassment.
But many of the ‘specially cleared’ charges in South Dakota are much more serious. 70 cases of rape or statutory rape, 12 vehicle thefts, 79 aggravated assaults, and more, never went to trial because the prosecution chose not to pursue them.
It is worth noting that Pennington County is not one of the worst offenders in this regard. Less than 2% of the county’s cases were dropped due to an exceptional clearing, and most of those were because the victim was unwilling to cooperate with the prosecution, a situation common in domestic violence cases or family disputes. This is the lowest rate of any major jurisdiction in the state.
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