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What Is a Criminal Charge?

A criminal charge is a formal accusation made by a state or local government authority against the defendant. The criminal charge asserts that the person has committed a crime, which is stated in the charge. Criminal charges are delivered to the defendant through a charging document. This document may take the form of a complaint, indictment, or information.  

Criminal charges usually contain information related to the case, such as the name of the person being accused and the type of charges being brought against them. 

Who Files a Criminal Charge?

The district attorney representing the state government or one of their deputies is the person who files a criminal charge against the alleged criminal. The district attorney or deputy district attorney, filling the role of the prosecutor, begin the process of pressing charges by looking at the evidence that the police have gathered against the criminal defendant after that person has been arrested by the police. The prosecutor uses this information to determine if there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the prosecutor.

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

What Are Common Categories of Criminal Charges?

Criminal charges are usually categorized according to the seriousness of the crimes. These categories are:

  • Infractions: These are charges that usually result in a citation, ticket, or other minor fine.
  • Misdemeanors: These charges may lead to criminal fines and 1 year max in jail.
  • Felonies: This type of charges generally result in high criminal fines and/or more than 1 year in prison.
  • “Wobblers”: This sort of crime may result in either felony or misdemeanor charges.

The categorization of criminal charges will depend on state laws. Each state will have slightly different ways of organizing criminal charges.

How Do Criminal Charges Affect Sentencing?

The way that criminal charges are filed can affect the sentencing options for the defendant. As mentioned above, there generally different sentencing limits for misdemeanors versus felonies, and so forth. Thus, one way to effectively reduce a criminal sentence is to have the charge changed from a felony charge to a misdemeanor charge. 

For instance if a weapon is used in a battery, it usually results in a felony. If the defense can prove that no weapon was used, it will usually result in a misdemeanor conviction rather than a felony.

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 higher fines and a longer jail sentence.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With a Criminal Charge?

Being charged with a crime is a serious matter that can severely impact your life in a very negative way. You may wish to hire a qualified criminal lawyer in your area if you are facing criminal charges. Your attorney can advise you of your legal rights, and can represent you throughout the duration of the trial.  Also, your lawyer will be able to inform you of any defenses that might be applicable to your case. 

Photo of page author Kourosh Akhbari

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 09-17-2015 05:19 PM PDT

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