A criminal charge is a formal accusation made by a government authority against the alleged perpetrator of a crime. The criminal charge asserts that the person has committed a crime, which is stated in the charge. Notice that criminal charges have been filed are delivered to the person who has been charged, the defendant in legal terminology.
The charging document may take the form of a complaint, an indictment, or information. If a prosecutor files the charging document on the basis of information received from law enforcement, it would be referred to as an “Information” or “complaint.” If the prosecutor presents the evidence to a grand jury and files the charging document when the grand jury votes in favor of it, it is referred to as an “indictment.”
Criminal charges contain information related to the case, such as the name of the person who is charged and the exact nature of the criminal conduct with which they are charged.
Who Files a Criminal Charge?
In states, the district attorney representing the state government or one of their deputies is the person who files a criminal charge against an alleged criminal. The district attorney or deputy district attorney, in the role of the prosecutor, begins the process of pressing charges by looking at the evidence that the police have gathered against an alleged perpetrator after that person has been arrested.
The prosecutor uses this information to determine if there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the perpetrator and, if so, for which crime.
An arrest does not always mean that charges are going to be filed. This is because the prosecutor may determine that there is not enough evidence to bring formal charges against the defendant and may not file criminal charges with the court. Once the prosecutor files charges, then the criminal process that may culminate in a trial begins.
In the federal system of criminal justice, the U.S. Attorney represents the federal government of the United States in all criminal prosecutions. The U.S. Attorney receives evidence of criminal activity that is given to them by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or some other federal law enforcement agency.
The U.S. Attorney must present the evidence it has to a grand jury. The grand jury reviews the evidence presented to it by the U.S. Attorney. The grand jury must decide whether the evidence is sufficient to charge the alleged perpetrator and require them to stand trial.
A grand jury is a group of citizens chosen in the same way people are chosen to serve on other kinds of juries. A grand jury works on criminal cases only. It evaluates evidence collected by law enforcement and presented to the grand jury by the U.S. Attorney. Again, it is the grand jury that determines whether there is probable cause to believe a certain person committed a crime and should be charged with that crime.
If the grand jury determines there is enough evidence to support a finding of probable cause, the U.S. Attorney files an indictment against the person, specifying the criminal charges against them.
A grand jury usually has from 16 to 23 jurors, which works in private. The grand jurors serve for as long as 18 months, and over that period of time, a grand jury considers many different cases.
What Are Common Categories of Criminal Charges?
Criminal charges are usually categorized according to the seriousness of the crimes. These standard categories in most states are as follows:
- Infractions: These are charges that usually result in a citation or ticket, and the punishment is a payment of a fine;
- Violations: Some states also have what they refer to as “violations.” These are considered to be non-criminal offenses other than traffic infractions. The maximum punishment for conviction of a violation is 15 days in jail and/or payment of a $250 fine. Examples of violations would be disorderly conduct or trespassing;
- Misdemeanors: These charges may lead to the payment of a fine and a maximum term of 1 year in county jail;
- Felonies: Felony criminal offenses usually allow for punishment in the form of payment of a large criminal fine and/or more than 1 year in state prison, not in a county jail. Punishment for the most serious of criminal offenses, e.g., 1st-degree murder, can include life in prison without parole or even the death penalty;
- Wobblers: This sort of crime may be charged as either felony or misdemeanor, depending on the specific facts of a particular case.
The categorization of criminal charges depends on state laws. Each state will have slightly different ways of organizing criminal charges. Some states organize crimes into classes. They may denominate these classes as Class 1, Class 2, etc., or Class A, Class B, and the like. North Carolina, for example, has an elaborate system by which it sorts felonies into classes.
New York states also sorts both misdemeanors and felonies into classes. Misdemeanors are as follows:
- Class A: Class A misdemeanors are the most serious misdemeanors. A person can be punished by a maximum of 1 year in jail;
- Class B: Class B misdemeanors are less serious, and the maximum punishment is 3 months in jail;
- Unclassified: Most unclassified misdemeanors are punished by 3 years of probation. However, someone can be punished for a driving while intoxicated unclassified misdemeanor by a maximum of 1 year in jail.
In the state of New York, felonies are classified as follows:
- A-I or A-II: punishable by life in prison;
- B: punishable by 25 years in prison;
- C: punishable by 15 years in prison;
- D: punishable by 7 years in prison;
- E: punishable by 4 years in prison.
How Do Criminal Charges Affect Sentencing?
The way that criminal offenses are charged affects the sentencing options for the defendant. As mentioned above, there are generally different sentences or punishments prescribed by law for each of the various misdemeanors and felonies.
Thus, one way to effectively reduce a criminal sentence is to have the charge changed from a felony charge to a misdemeanor charge. Or, in states with classes of felonies and misdemeanors, the class may determine the sentence that can be imposed for a particular crime.
For instance, if a weapon is used in a battery, it would usually be charged as a felony. If the defense can prove that no weapon was used, the charge would be reduced to a misdemeanor with a much less severe sentence.
Also, repeat offenses can have the effect of making the sentence more severe. For instance, a simple battery charge can result in a small fine and a short time in jail, usually less than one year. However, being convicted for a second or third battery charge can lead to a higher fine and a longer jail or prison sentence. A second or subsequent offense might be charged as a felony and not a misdemeanor.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With a Criminal Charge?
Being charged with a crime is a serious matter that can impact your life in a strongly negative way. You want to consult a qualified criminal defense lawyer in your area if you are facing criminal charges, and LegalMatch.com can connect you to one quickly and efficiently.
If you have been charged with a federal crime, you want to consult a federal criminal defense lawyer.
Your attorney can advise you of your legal rights and can represent you throughout the process, including at trial. Also, your lawyer will be able to inform you of any defenses that might be applicable to your case. Your lawyer will make sure that your rights are protected throughout your case.