A criminal complaint is a court document filed that accuses or charges a suspect with committing a crime. Criminal complaints are usually filed by the prosecutor in cooperation with the police. Sometimes the victim of a crime will individually file a criminal complaint against a suspect.  In many instances, criminal trials start with the filing of the complaint.

An arrest does not begin a formal criminal proceeding. The filing of a criminal complaint is required for the criminal process to begin. Unlike civil complaints, criminal complaints always are filed by the government or the prosecutor of the state who is bringing the charges.

Who Files a Criminal Complaint?

Unlike civil complaints, a criminal complaint is filed by the government of the state that the charges are being brought in. A state prosecutor begins the process after an arrest by the police and presents the case to the prosecution. The prosecution than looks over the police report and determines whether there are enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the prosecutor.

An arrest does not always mean that charges will be filed because the prosecution may determine that there is not enough evidence to bring formal charges against the defendant and may not file a criminal complaint in criminal court. Once the prosecutor files a criminal complaint with the criminal court, then the legal process begins.

When Are Criminal Complaints Used?

Not all criminal cases involve filing a criminal complaint. Whether or not a criminal complaint is used will depend mostly on:

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

In some criminal cases, trial begins with an indictment rather than a criminal complaint.  And in many states, filing a criminal complaint is optional depending on the circumstances. You may wish to check 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 a Proper Criminal Complaint?

The following 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 being charged
  • The specific law or statute that the defendant has allegedly violated

Criminal complaints must be submitted in writing under oath. This means that 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 been made. 

Generally speaking, criminal complaints are accompanied by a “Case Information Sheet” (CIS). This sheet states important information regarding the case as well as the lawyers representing the parties. The CIS helps judges accomplish tasks like setting deadlines.

What If There Are Errors in a Criminal Complaint?

If the criminal complaint contains errors or does not follow the guidelines listed above, it might be possible to have the complaint dismissed. Some common 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 all the essential elements each crime

Do I Need a Lawyer for Criminal Complaint?

It is important to understand how a criminal complaint can affect the outcome of your case. It is possible for a case to 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 charged. Your lawyer can review the complaint and represent you during the trial proceedings.