A criminal complaint is a type of legal document that provides a description of the specific crimes that a criminal suspect is being accused of committing. In most jurisdictions, a criminal complaint will typically be filed by a state prosecutor or local district attorney after they have determined that the police have gathered enough evidence to formally charge a suspect.

Some criminal matters, however, may require an indictment or an information to be filed in lieu of a criminal complaint. While all three are types of legal documents that can be used to initiate a criminal case and to notify a suspect about the charges being brought against them, there are some slight differences between each of their procedures.

For instance, similar to a criminal complaint, an indictment lists the formal charges being brought against a suspect as well as the justifications for those charges. Unlike a criminal complaint though, a grand jury will be the party who decides whether a case should proceed to trial; not the prosecutor. Additionally, an indictment can only be issued when a crime rises to the level of a felony offense.

As for an information, neither the prosecutor nor a jury will get to make this decision. Instead, the decision on whether to move forward with a criminal matter or not will rest with a magistrate judge. Also, no grand jury will need to be empaneled in order to obtain an information. 

Thus, the process of formally charging a suspect tends to go much quicker when a prosecutor files a criminal complaint or information document, as opposed to an indictment. Though it should be noted that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution will require a prosecutor to use an indictment when a felony crime is involved in a matter, unless the suspect chooses to waive this right.

To learn more about criminal complaints and their procedural specifications, you should consult a local criminal lawyer for further legal guidance.

Who Can File a Criminal Complaint?

As previously mentioned, the majority of criminal complaints are filed by government representatives, such as a state prosecutor or a local district attorney. Although this is rare, a minority of states will allow a citizen to file a criminal complaint or an application for one. Private citizens are normally only permitted to bring civil lawsuits in most states.

Depending on the evidence collected during an investigation, the police may arrest a suspect either before a criminal complaint is issued or may request that a prosecutor determine whether charges can be brought against a particular suspect in order to arrest them. An arrest does not necessarily mean that charges will be filed, and vice versa. 

For example, if a prosecutor decides that there is not enough evidence to support a case or a specific case is not worth their time, then they may not file any charges against them and may instruct the police to release the suspect from custody. However, if the circumstances change (e.g., substantial evidence is discovered), then the suspect might be brought in for questioning and charged later on.

When Are Criminal Complaints Used?

Not all criminal matters will require a government attorney to file a criminal complaint in court. Whether or not a criminal complaint needs to be filed will primarily depend on two key factors, which include:

  • The type of crime committed (e.g., was it a state or federal crime?); and
  • The severity of the crime (e.g., felony, misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, etc.).

As discussed above, some criminal cases may need to be initiated by an indictment or an information. In such instances, it is not necessary to file a criminal complaint since each one of these legal documents can provide the same functions as a complaint. Also, in some states, filing a criminal complaint will be optional for certain crimes.

Thus, criminal complaints will mainly be used in four situations:

  • When the law requires it;
  • When there is an option to file one and a prosecutor chooses to do so;
  • When a criminal complaint is necessary to make an arrest; and/or
  • When a prosecutor needs to file a matter quickly.

What Are the Steps to File a Criminal Complaint?

Although the steps to file a criminal complaint can vary widely based on the circumstances surrounding a matter and on the laws of the jurisdiction prosecuting the case, there are some basic requirements that will remain the same in the majority of states. In general, the criminal complaint procedure will typically entail the following steps:

  • Law enforcement will either witness or receive a tip about a crime being committed.
  • If they witness the crime, then they might take the suspect into custody immediately. On the other hand, if they receive a tip, then it may take longer for them to apprehend a suspect. Either way, law enforcement will look into a matter by conducting an investigation. 
  • After the initial investigation ends, the police will examine the evidence they have and may decide to file a report with a local prosecutor.
  • The prosecutor will then review the report, any evidence that was collected, and the circumstances of the crime to determine whether there is enough evidence to file charges against the suspect. 
  • If there is, then they will file a criminal complaint with a local criminal court that has jurisdiction over the matter. Alternatively, they may also empanel a grand jury to obtain an indictment or file an information. 
  • In some states, the filing of charges will trigger an arrest. In others, the suspect may already be in custody and thus the legal process can begin (e.g., notifying the defendant of the charges against them, allowing them to respond to the charges, submitting requests for discovery, preparing for trial, and so forth). 

What Should Be Included in a Criminal Complaint for It to Be Valid?

There is certain information that should be included in a criminal complaint in order for it to be valid. However, the type of information that must be included to make it legally enforceable may vary by jurisdiction. In general, for a criminal complaint to be valid, it should contain the following information:

  • A description or list of all the criminal charges that the prosecutor is filing against the suspect;
  • The date of when the crime (or crimes) was allegedly committed;
  • A written statement that includes all of the facts available that are specifically connected to the criminal charges; and 
  • The particular state law or statute that the suspect has supposedly violated.

Additionally, an affidavit (i.e., a written sworn statement) should be attached to the complaint when it is filed. The affidavit must assert that the individual filing the complaint swears that the information contained in it is accurate and truthful. 

A criminal complaint may also be accompanied by a “Case Information Sheet (“CIS”)”. Although these documents are more commonly found in connection with a civil lawsuit, some states do require them for criminal cases as well. 

A CIS is basically a cover sheet that provides information about the attorneys involved in the case, the facts or circumstances surrounding the matter, whether there are co-defendants attached to the case, and the current status of the defendant (e.g., out on bail, in custody, etc.). This information can be useful for a court and can help a judge to accomplish tasks like setting deadlines for motions or preliminary hearings. 

What If a Criminal Complaint Contains Errors?

In the event that a criminal complaint contains an error or fails to comply with the requirements discussed above, then it may be possible to have the case dismissed and the charges dropped. For example, if a complaint does not demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that a particular suspect committed a specific crime, then this could be grounds for a dismissal.

A criminal complaint may also be found to be invalid if it does not include the crime being charged or is missing some essential elements needed to prove the crime that is listed.

Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that it is possible to check the status of a criminal complaint. A defendant can do this by contacting an attorney for help, calling the clerk’s office, and/or by visiting the website for the court’s filing system and reviewing it online. 

However, it should be noted that a status check may also refer to the hearing that a defendant must attend to find out whether the prosecutor is going to proceed with their case or not. This proceeding is sometimes known as a “Progress Call”. Other issues (aside from the complaint) may be discussed during this kind of hearing as well, such as scheduling a trial date, finding out whether the matter can be plea bargained, and resolving any potential discovery issues.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for a Criminal Complaint?

When a criminal complaint is filed against you, it is important that you take the matter very seriously and can appreciate the consequences of what might happen if your case goes to trial. Thus, if you are facing criminal charges or do not understand the requirements of what to do when a criminal complaint is filed against you, then it is strongly recommended that you retain a local criminal lawyer as soon as possible. 

An experienced criminal lawyer can review the criminal complaint and will be able to determine whether there are any errors with it or if it is invalid for some technical reason. Oftentimes, a case may actually hinge on whether a complaint is valid or not. If your lawyer discovers that it is invalid, then they can petition the court on your behalf to have it dismissed.

If the criminal complaint is valid, however, then your attorney can apprise you of your legal rights as a criminal defendant, can ensure that those rights are sufficiently protected, and can find out whether there are any defenses available that you can raise against the charges. Additionally, your lawyer can provide representation in court and can try to negotiate with the prosecutor for a lighter sentence or a more favorable plea bargain deal.