A criminal complaint is a court document that accuses or charges a suspect with committing a specific crime. Criminal complaints are typically filed by the prosecutor in cooperation with the police officer(s) who made the arrest. In some instances, the victim of a crime will individually file a criminal complaint against a suspect.  

In most instances, criminal trials formally start with the filing of the complaint. A police stop or arrest does not necessarily begin a formal criminal proceeding. The filing of a criminal complaint is generally required for the criminal process to begin. Unlike civil complaints or lawsuits, criminal complaints are always filed by the government or the prosecutor of the state who is bringing the charges.

Who Can File a Criminal Complaint?

Unlike civil complaints, a criminal complaint is filed or initiated by the government of the state that the charges are being brought in. A state prosecutor (who represents the state) begins the process after an arrest by the police and will present the case to the prosecution. 

The prosecution then reviews the police report in detail. They will determine whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the defendant (or defendants, depending on the circumstances).

An arrest does not always automatically mean that charges will be filed. This can happen for instance if the prosecution determines that there is not enough evidence to bring formal charges against the defendant. If so, they may end up choosing not to file a criminal complaint in criminal court. 

Note that in some situations, the person might not have a conviction on their record, but the record of arrest may be present in some cases (again, this depends on several factors). Once the prosecutor does file a criminal complaint with the criminal court, however, then the legal process begins.

When are Criminal Complaints Used?

Not every single criminal case involves filing a criminal complaint. Whether or not a criminal complaint is filed will depend mostly on:

  • Whether the crime involved a violation of state or federal laws; and
  • How serious the crime is (i.e., felony vs. misdemeanor or other category of crime).

In some criminal cases, trial formally begins with an indictment rather than a criminal complaint. A criminal indictment often involves a grand jury determining whether there will be enough evidence against the suspect or defendant for the trial to move forward.This usually involves serious crimes such as capital crimes and those involving the death penalty. The main goal of a criminal indictment is to determine some probability that a crime occurred and whether there is a high likelihood that the defendant committed the crime. This is to help save judicial resources on serious cases that don’t have enough supporting evidence to proceed with trial. 

In many states, filing a criminal complaint is actually optional depending on the circumstances. It may be necessary to review the laws of your area or consult with an attorney if you are unsure of the rules in your state.

What Should be Included in Criminal Complaint for it to be Valid?

The following information should be contained in a criminal complaint for it to be valid:

  • A list of all the criminal charges that the prosecution will be filing against the defendant;
  • The date of the alleged offenses;
  • A statement in writing of all the available facts that specifically relate to the crime charged; and
  • The specific law or statute that the defendant has allegedly violated.

Criminal complaints must also be submitted in writing under oath, which is known as an affidavit. That is, the party filing the complaint must swear that the information contained in the complaint is accurate and truthful. The complaint can be filed either before or after an arrest has already been made. 

In most instances, criminal complaints will be accompanied by a “Case Information Sheet” (CIS). This sheet states important information regarding the case, such as the lawyers representing the parties. The CIS also helps judges accomplish tasks like setting deadlines.

What if a Criminal Complaint Contains Errors?

If the criminal complaint contains errors or does not follow any of the guidelines listed above, it might be possible to have the complaint dismissed. Some errors that might make a complaint invalid include:

  • Lack of Probable Cause: If the complaint doesn’t demonstrate probable cause that you committed the specific crime, it might be dismissed;
  • Failure to Properly Charge a Crime: All crimes being charged must be listed in the complaint. This includes a statement of the essential elements needed to prove each crime.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Criminal Complaint?

It is important to understand how serious a criminal complaint is and how it can affect the outcome of your case. It is possible for a case to actually hinge on whether a complaint is valid or not. It is to your advantage to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area if you are facing criminal charges. A lawyer can review the complaint and represent you during the criminal trial proceedings.