Nolle Prosequi

The Latin term nolle prosequi means to “be unwilling to pursue,” and is used in the criminal legal system to signify that the prosecution is discontinuing, or will not prosecute. In simple terms, nolle prosequi amounts to a voluntary dismissal of criminal charges by the prosecution, or a dismissal of a civil lawsuit. This may be done before trial, or even after trial has begun, and nolle prosequi may apply to all of the charges against the defendant, or to only a portion of them. To explore this concept, consider the following nolle prosequi definition.

Definition of Nolle Prosequi

Pronounced     nä′lē präs′i kwī′


  1. An official entry into the record of a court case signifying that the plaintiff or prosecution will proceed no further.
  2. A formal dismissal of a court case.

Origin of Limine

1675-1680       Latin

Purpose of Nolle Prosequi

Nolle prosequi amounts to a formal declaration made by a prosecutor in a criminal case, or by a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit, that the case against the defendant is being dropped. In criminal cases, nolle prosequi may be used in situations in which there is a fatal flaw in the prosecution’s case, the prosecutor realizes he cannot prove the charges, or even that the prosecutor no longer believes the defendant is guilty.

Nolle prosequi may be entered in a civil lawsuit for similar reasons, such as when evidence and testimony take a turn, and the plaintiff no longer has confidence that it will prove his case. In both civil and criminal cases, the entry of nolle prosequi has the same effect as a voluntary dismissal of the case, or certain claims, charges, or defendants, of a case.

Nolle Prosequi and Double Jeopardy

Nolle prosequi is used to discontinue a civil or criminal case as a voluntary dismissal. In a criminal matter, this has the effect of dropping the charges without prejudice. Because discontinuing a criminal case in such a manner does not constitute a judgment or verdict based on the merits of the case, there is nothing keeping the prosecutor from re-filing the same charges at a later date. This means that, in a criminal case, double jeopardy does not apply, as the charges were never tried.

For example:

Armando was arrested and charged with burglary after the investigation uncovered a witness placing his car on the same block where the crime occurred, during the same time period. The charges were filed based on the witness’ statement, as well as several items of circumstantial evidence. A few days before the trial was to start, the prosecutor learns that the witness not only has a substantial criminal history, but has a personal grudge and reason to want to harm Armando’s reputation.

If the witness’ testimony is deemed unreliable, which is likely, considering the circumstances, the prosecutor is not confident a guilty verdict would be rendered. The prosecutor files a motion for nolle prosequi, signifying he will not be pursuing the charges at this time, and dismissing the case.

Investigators continued to look for evidence as to Armando’s guilt, and discover that one of the victim’s neighbors has security cameras in which Armando can be seen entering the victim’s home through a window in the back yard. With this new, damning evidence, the prosecution re-files burglary charges against Armando, and the process is started again.

Reasons to Dismiss via Nolle Prosequi

There are any number of reasons a prosecutor might file a motion for nolle prosequi. In some states, the prosecutor may dismiss criminal charges on his own initiative, in other states, the prosecution must submit a motion for nolle prosequi to the court, which must be approved by the court. Common reasons for nolle prosequi include:

  • A key witness has been discredited, or is now refusing to cooperate
  • Evidence has been reevaluated and found lacking, or found to prove the opposition’s point
  • New evidence, which proves the defendant’s innocence, or brings doubt as to his guilt, has come to light

Charges Against Famous Terrorist Dismissed by Nolle Prosequi

On June 17, 2011, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara filed a motion of nolle prosequi regarding terrorism charges against Osama bin Laden, which had been filed more than 13 years previously, for his role in blowing up two U.S. Embassies in Africa. This motion of unwillingness to pursue came after the al Qaeda leader’s death during a military raid on his home in Pakistan. Orders of nolle prosequi are common when a defendant has become deceased.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Dismissal without Prejudice – A voluntary dismissal which allows for charges to be filed, or the civil lawsuit to be re-filed, at a later date.
  • Double Jeopardy – The Fifth Amendment protection from being tried for the same crime twice, and from being compelled to testify against oneself.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Prejudicial – Tending to injure or impair, detrimental or harmful to someone or something.
  • Prosecutor – A person, especially a public official, who institutes legal proceedings against someone.