Nolle prosequi as a declaration is most often used in criminal cases, but in jurisdictions making use of nolle prosequi in civil lawsuits, is used by a plaintiff to voluntarily drop its claims. In civil cases, a motion for voluntary dismissal may be made by a plaintiff instead of a declaration of nolle prosequi, depending upon the custom and rules of a given jurisdiction.
Nolle prosequi as a declaration can be made by a prosecutor in a criminal case either before or during trial, resulting in the prosecutor declining to further pursue the case against the defendant. Courts seldom challenge applications for nolle prosequi, typically judges in the U.S. will sign a dismissal order prepared by the prosecution or make a docket entry indicating the disposition of the case to be "nolle prosse" after a declaration or motion by the prosecution. In criminal cases in the U.S. it has been held improper for a court to enter an order of nolle prosequi on its own without a motion by the prosecutor, but as to sentencing discrepancies involved in a sentence recommendation, a trial judge is authorized to reject an underlying guilty plea based upon concerns of fairness and justice or because it is presented after the plea cutoff date. The notes to Rule 48 of the US Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (FRCRP) draw attention to the effect of the rule as contrasting with common law: Rule 48 now mandates that prosecutors seek leave of the court before dismissing a case via filing a nolle prosequi.
The declaration may be made because the charges cannot be proved due to evidence too weak to carry the burden of proof, because the evidence is fatally flawed in light of the claims brought, or may be made if the prosecutor becomes doubtful the accused is guilty or the defendant's innocence is proved, or if the defendant has died. It has also been used when a Federal criminal charge is brought up against a defendant and the prosecutor on a State charge for the same offense no longer wishes to pursue the case. Usually this happens when the State prosecutor is content with the sentence on the Federal charge and has no need to go any further with the original case.
In criminal cases, nolle prosequi declarations are generally made after an indictment as long as adjudication on the merits has not occurred, or in some jurisdictions, as long as a trial has not commenced. In civil cases, nolle prosequi declarations are made either before trial begins or before a judgement on the merits is rendered, depending on the rules of the jurisdiction.
A withdrawal of the original claim by way of nolle prosequi is not an adjudication on the merits of the claim and thus in a criminal case is not a guarantee that the defendant will not be later re-indicted. The entry of a nolle prosequi as a disposition is, by itself, not an adjudication on the merits of the prosecution or on the guilt or innocence of the accused, and the legal protection against double jeopardy will not automatically bar the charges from being brought again.
Application in civil cases
In civil cases, a nolle prosequi or voluntary dismissal may be entered as to one of several counts or claims, or as to one of several defendants, or both. In any jurisdiction, whether a motion for voluntary dismissal is used or a declaration of nolle prosequi, federal and state rules of civil procedure generally govern when, how and for what reasons claims may be voluntarily dismissed, applying different rules to different types of claims, and to whether a court may give leave to dismiss a matter with or without prejudice.
Similarity to a declination of prosecution
Nolle prosequi is similar to a declination of prosecution, which is an agreement not to prosecute made before any charges are brought or suit has been filed. A declination of prosecution may be made by an attorney, but also may be made as an agreement between the aggrieved party and the claimant. In contrast, nolle prosequi is usually made after a decision to prosecute has already been made. A declination of prosecution may be made for many reasons, such as weak evidence or a conflict of interest.
^A nolle prosequi can be entered at any time after the indictment or information has been signed and before verdict: R v Dunn (supra); R v Colling (1847) 2 Cox CC184; R v Sneesby (1951) St R Qd 26; R v Economou (1989) 51 SASR 421; R v Heald (1979) Tas R 185 source: R v Michael Charles Baenisch SASC 5679 (28 June 1996) para. 12.
^United States v. Cox, 342 F.2d 167 (5th Cir.) (en banc), cert denied, 381 U.S. 935 (1965). Involved a federal grand jury indictment against civil rights workers and the refusal by a US Attorney to sign the indictment. The Fifth Circuit held that the US Attorney's signing or withholding of his signature was within prosecutorial discretion and could not be coerced by the courts. See also the dicta in US v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 at 693, 1974, "[The] Executive Branch has exclusive authority and absolute discretion to decide whether to prosecute a case." (citing Cox).
^People v. Grove, 566 N.W.2d 547 at 556, Mich. Sup. Ct. 1997, and cited by Casenote: Criminal Law - Plea Bargaining, 75 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 741, Summer, 1998.
^Snead v. Jones, 169 Ala. 143, 53 So. 188; MacLaughlin v. Lehigh Valley R. Co., 93 N. J. L. 263, 108 Atl. 309; Dickerson v. Atlantic Refining Co., 201 N. C. 90, 159 S.E. 446; Hobbs v. Illinois Cent. R. Co., 182 Iowa 316, 165 N.W. 912.