In New York, each county has an office of the District Attorney, wherein the state will prosecute primarily criminal actions. However, civil actions can also be prosecuted, particularly in conjunction with child protection services. The District Attorney, or D.A. prosecutes only violations of state law – violations of Federal law are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office. It is a public office, beholden to the public and its will. It is not a private law firm. It is run with taxpayer money, and the attorneys who work at the D.A.’s office work for the state, rather than any private individual.
District attorneys are elected in general elections, and they will typically appoint or hire all of the assistant attorneys in the office. That means that every few years, many of the employees within the D.A.’s office can be replaced, which ensures that corruption or bad practices do not become embedded within the offices. Most D.A.’s offices in New York do not have term limits – that means they can potentially be continuously re-elected forever. This was to ensure the independence of the D.A.’s office, so that legislatures cannot limit the ability of prosecutors to prosecute crimes. Elections are one of the most effective forms of accountability for prosecutors. This is because they are typically rarely sanctioned or disbarred by the State legal community for prosecutorial misconduct. If they are found to have committed misconduct, the taxpayers are on the hook for the payment – individual prosecutors will not have to pay out a settlement.
The office of the D.A. can investigate crimes with or without local law enforcement. Usually, police officers are the ones to find the criminals and make an arrest. Once an arrest is made, the D.A. will then make the decision to prosecute a case. However, the D.A. need not wait for an arrest to occur before investigating the crime – they can initiate their own investigation to gather preliminary evidence in order to execute an arrest. Once the D.A. does decide to try a case, they will investigate through the usual channels of criminal or civil procedure, including gathering more evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and gathering documents through discovery and subpoenas. Most D.A. offices have investigators to gather the evidence required to bring a strong enough case to trial. However, the vast majority of cases do not proceed to trial. The D.A. will determine whether or not to offer or accept certain plea bargains. This is because trials are time-consuming and costly endeavors, and by arranging for plea deals, the office will lower costs, and process their cases much more quickly, reflecting the best interest of justice.
Remember, the D.A.’s office is the branch in charge of prosecuting crimes – it should not be confused with the (also government-funded) office of the Public Defender. The Public Defender defends low-income suspects against the prosecutorial actions of the D.A. The D.A. is the gate-keeper of justice. While the office is primarily concerned with prosecuting criminal actions, it must act vigilantly to ensure that it does not prosecute someone who is wrongfully accused. If the D.A.’s office has reason to believe that their suspect did not commit the crime, they have an ethical duty to dismiss the case and continue their investigation to find the right perpetrator.