Criminal Law

Criminal Complaints

By Micah Schwartzbach, Attorney
A criminal complaint is a document that charges a defendant with a crime.

Criminal cases normally start with an arrest. But not always, and not all arrests result in criminal cases. Most of the time, what really gets a case going is the filing of an official document with the court—often called a “complaint.”

Complaints serve at least a couple purposes:

  • providing some kind of showing that the government has a legitimate reason to prosecute the defendant and
  • clearly informing defendants of the allegations against them.

Getting Started

Normally, the police arrest someone, then submit a report to the local prosecuting office. That office then decides whether to file charges against the suspect. If the prosecutor responsible for the filing decision thinks there’s enough evidence and the case is worth prosecuting, the office files a complaint. (Complaints can also come before the point of arrest; in some states, one has to be filed before a judge can issue an arrest warrant.)

The New Jersey Courts site provides a look at how the charging process can work—and how the word “complaint” can have different meanings. According to the site, in the New Jersey system, charges come about from a “formal complaint” issued by an officer or a citizen. After a complaint is filed and the first court appearance, the prosecutor’s office in the relevant county decides whether to go ahead with a “criminal complaint.”

In many jurisdictions, the defendant is presented with the complaint at the first court appearance, often called an “arraignment” or “initial appearance.”

What Complaints Look Like

Criminal complaints tend to look similar, particularly within the same county or court. Prosecuting offices have templates that they adjust depending on the case at hand.

A complaint normally has a caption at the top indicating:

  • the court where the case is being filed
  • the party filing the complaint (for example, “The People of the State of California” or “United States of America”), and
  • the defendant.

The complaint then includes come kind of description of the accusations against the defendant. Where there are multiple counts, each gets its own number and paragraph or section. The bottom of the complaint normally has at least one signature line, for the person filing the complaint.

A felony complaint filed against Michael Jackson in 2003 gives an idea of what these documents look like.

Who Can File a Complaint

Again, the typical party to file a criminal complaint is the prosecutor’s office with jurisdiction over the offense. In some states, a private citizen can apply for a complaint, but there’s no guarantee that a complaint will actually be filed.

In one case, for instance, a Massachusetts court confirmed that a corporation had the right to file applications for criminal complaints against customers who paid for items with bad checks. But the court also said that the corporation’s right didn’t mean the judge had to actually issue the requested complaints. (Victory Distributors, Inc. v. Ayer Div. of Dist. Court Dep't, 435 Mass. 136 (2001).)

What Complaints Include

Complaints have to meet standard requirements. The must-haves typically include the defendant's name and a statement of when, at least approximately, the crime happened.

Prosecutors normally don’t need to use a precise set of words in their complaints, as long as they provide reasonable notice of the charges the defendant faces. The complaint is supposed to state the essentials of the offense that the defendant purportedly committed. If it doesn’t, then the complaint is open to challenge by the defense. For example, if a complaint charging hit and run says only that the defendant was involved in a car accident—not that he failed to stop, provide identification, or offer help—then it has probably failed.

Even when prosecutors have made a mistake in a complaint, though, they often have the opportunity to fix the error. If, say, the judge dismisses the complaint after the defense shows that the facts described in the complaint don’t make for a crime, the prosecution may well have a chance to refile charges.

Getting Help

To understand the procedure in your jurisdiction—from arrest to complaint and beyond—consult an experienced criminal attorney. A lawyer familiar with the system should be able to explain your options and protect your rights.

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