We hear it all the time on television lawyer dramas. After a heart-wrenching hour of biting its nails, the crowd lets out an audible sigh of relief as the attorney exits the court room and utters the words “case dismissed.” However, would they react in the same way if the attorney instead walked out and said “the case has been voluntarily dismissed with leave”? Maybe. Probably not if they understood what that meant. Rather than focusing on the complex emotions and reactions of imaginary audience members, perhaps it’s best to understand what dismissal and dismissal with leave actually mean in the Tar Heel State.
Firstly, a voluntary dismissal or “VD” is NOT a verdict. It is NOT a finding of innocence factual or otherwise but, ironically, VD is something most people want (in a legal context). A voluntary dismissal simply shows that the lawsuit is closed with no current legal ramifications due to that specific charge, as the defendant was not convicted. Although a dismissal will still appear on one’s record it is typically a positive outcome. You don’t have to deal with it anymore if it was dismissed with prejudice—meaning that it cannot be brought back up by the DA, and even if it is just voluntarily dismissed it doesn’t typically get brought back up by the DA’s office. However, there are a few different kinds of dismissals which can further impact the defendant, and THAT is where voluntary dismissal with leave comes into the fray.
This mouthful of an outcome –voluntary dismissal with leave is also known as “VL” in North Carolina. It usually occurs in cases when the defendant has failed to appear in court for an extended period of time. Though the “voluntary dismissal” portion of it sounds positive, its far more complex than that –otherwise people just wouldn’t show up to court to have cases dismissed! Ultimately a case in VL status is removed from the active docket without being resolved . . .and it just sits there no longer pending, unresolved. However, the charges are not necessarily dropped and in fact the case can re surface or be reinstated at the district attorney’s discretion. Basically, a case in VL status can be brought back whenever and if the DA ever wants to bring it back.
It is also important to note that while cases are in VL status the statute of limitations stops running. This can be troublesome as typically the state has 3 years to pursue a misdemeanor charge in North Carolina. However if the case was placed into VL status 90 days after the defendant failed to show up in court, sat there for 20 years, and the DA decides to bring it back 20 years later, then the case is only on day 91 and they have every right to prosecute or NOT prosecute the case to the full extent of the law 20 years later.
Interestingly enough NOT prosecuting creates a lot of difficulties for individuals in the court system. Twenty days after you miss court the DMV is notified and in turn, they notify you that you have 2 months to resolve the issue, or your license will be suspended. This is particularly troublesome because it doesn’t matter if you received the notice or not, as long as it was sent to your last known address. If in 2 months it is not resolved, your license is suspended until it is resolved. By this point the case may already be in VL status and you may be limited as to your options to resolve it in court, and in getting your license reinstated. So here you are driving around with a suspended license, and boom you catch another charge, so the cycle continues and nothing can be resolved until the VL is taken care of.
In a nutshell, voluntary dismissal is a good thing – which is why every lawyer on tv looks very smug when saying “case dismissed.” Voluntary dismissal with leave is more complex, leaves the case hanging above your head doing nothing until you and your attorney decide to handle it. Moreover, it can lead to difficulty dealing with charges if left unattended, an extended period of having a suspended license, and honestly it isn’t quite as catchy as “case dismissed” which are all probably reasons why attorneys never say it on tv.
Here at Matheson & Associates we understand the value of timing in these matters and are always ready to zealously advocate for positive results for our clients. If you have any pending VL cases contact us today!