Prosecutors are highly trained professionals who must apply legal standards in a variety of cases that often do not fit within guidelines identified in the law. While many cases are plead out – upwards of 90% in the United States – and may lie within the black and white letter of the law, there are others that require prosecutors to wade through the gray and make determinations in accordance with the various demands placed upon them. Ideally their decisions would be based on justice, but prosecutors also have to deal with political structures and a public that demands a tough on crime stance. Sometimes, prosecutors also understand that their effectiveness, and therefore their likelihood of promotion in their field, is determined by how well they prosecute and obtain convictions. These considerations are often at odds with justice, and prosecutors must walk a fine line between making ethical decisions and engaging in misconduct.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this activity you will be able to:

  1. Identify ethical standards for prosecutors.
  2. Compare and contrast the value of justice with the demands of a prosecutor’s office.
  3. Evaluate the consequences of prosecutor misconduct on an individual level and at the system level.

Prosecutor’s Terminology

Prosecutors must weigh the merits of a case, the evidence available, and the pressure to convict on a daily basis. In order to appreciate the difficulty of these decisions, it is important to understand the terms related to misconduct. Please drag and drop each term below to its appropriate definition.

  • Justice
  • Law
  • Ethics
    the quality of being fair and equitable to all people
      the combined system of rules and guidelines formally written into our governance enforced by police and the courts
        the moral principles that guide behavior

        Scenario Introduction

        The following scenario is designed to make you aware of the many factors involved in trying a case and pursuing justice.

        Imagine that you are prosecutor in a small city managed by a town council. You are assigned a case where a police officer was called to the scene of a party at a park in a gated community. The original call was a noise complaint: a group of locals were shooting off fireworks on the edge of the community’s lake. The officer was not familiar with the neighborhood and could only view the offenders from the opposite side of the lake, about 70 yards away. The officer is one of your former students, and the offenders are friends from the college where you teach as a part time adjunct professor, and your spouse is friendly with them.

        Facts You Know

        A police officer was dispatched to an area where fireworks were suspected of being used. There was a party in the area.

        Assumptions you can make

        Although you may be tempted to assume either the police officer found the right folks because it was the only party he found, or he was in error, you shouldn’t assume anything. Doing so increase the odds of misconduct – you must follow the law.

        Information to gather

        Have you already familiarized yourself with all local regulations and security guidelines, read the reports from the responding officer, compiled a list of witnesses you would consider talking to, and familiarized yourself with the type of fireworks used?

        How Should You Proceed?

        Based on what you know right now, how should you proceed? Be mindful of your choices; the color-coded meter below will track the likelihood of misconduct as a result of your decisions: an empty, gray bar is the most ethical decision, green is still a good decision, yellow is questionable, and red could have serious consequences for justice, the law, and ethics. If your meter is red, you may not reach a successful outcome. Remember that different jurisdictions will have different outcomes and this is merely a generalized representation.

        Decision Review

        As you read through the case file and familiarize yourself with local regulations, you discover that the offenders admitted to shooting off some small fireworks and may have been violating local ordinance and community governance, depending on the type of fireworks. Some types of fireworks they may have had were illegal and may have been endangering neighbors who were night fishing on the lake. The police officer also reported that the offenders may have been shooting firearms into the air. The officer attempted to find the suspects, but was unable to do so before the area was clear.

        How Should You Proceed?

        Based on this new information, how should you proceed?

        Descision Review

        You are growing tired of this case. With no ballistic evidence, it appears that nothing of significance occurred and this was simply friends having fun with fireworks. The likelihood of your friends having a gun, let alone firing one, seems unlikely. The neighborhood is full of older people who would report any sort of disturbance, even a minor one. You have more important, high profile cases to pursue and some may lead to big political gains and maybe a promotion. There’s really no reason to pursue this case for you personally.

        Final Investigation

        The evidence suggests the fireworks were likely legal, and that one involved suspect was the underage niece of one of your friends. The fireworks would only be illegal if she was underage, which has not been verified yet. The evidence also does not suggest that there was a firearm at the party or that it was discharged. A stray casing that may have come from the gun was located on the opposite shore.

        A final decision is upon you, what do you do now?

        Investigation Review

        Investigation Review

        Filing charges is the next step in a long process. Depending upon the investigation, you may be promoted, reprimanded, or charged with a crime yourself. Misconduct can sometimes have both positive and negative consequences. Making a hasty decision regarding a case could be viewed as misconduct, or efficient work.



        Prosecutors must adhere to ethical and legal guidelines in the pursuit of justice. They must be objective and diligent even in those cases that may appear routine, mundane, or simple.

        Understanding prosecutorial misconduct is complex and can vary from deliberate actions such as prosecuting someone falsely, to simply not following through on all evidence. Realistically every prosecutor must take head to note the constraints of case load and time, but diligence and consistency in action will always be fruitful.

        You have now completed this activity. However, you may try again to explore different results.

        Conduct Meter