criminal complaint

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A “criminal complaint” is a self-contained charge that sets forth the sufficient facts that, with reasonable inferences, allow a person to reasonably conclude that a crime was likely committed and that the suspect/defendant, is likely culpable.
A criminal complaint is also known as a felony complaint, and is slightly different from a civil complaint. Instead of an individual filing the complaint, the government usually files the criminal complaint against the individual. However, some states do allow individuals to file criminal complaints. Essentially, it’s a judicial order, a court-issued document that charges the defendant with specific crimes.

As the name implies, an individual is charged with a crime via the criminal complaint. 

  • Usually in criminal cases, the police first arrest the defendant and then file a report to the local prosecutor
  • Then, the prosecutor decides whether to formally process charges against the defendant. 
  • The prosecutor’s decision to charge the defendant with the crime is based on whether there is enough evidence and if the case is worthy the prosecutor’s time. 
  • In some states, the criminal complaint must be filed before the court issues an arrest warrant.

The processes for a complaint vary throughout jurisdictions, and it is normally the prosecutor who determines whether to present the criminal complaint to the court

Criminal complaints are normally first started with the application for a complaint, along with an affidavit by the complainant, which is titled an affidavit of probable causeThe judge examines the statements in the application and affidavit. In some instances, the judge will hold a hearing with notice to the defendant to examine all the statements. If the judge is satisfied that there is sufficient probable cause that the individual in the complaint committed the specified crimes, the judge signs and issues the complaint. Sometimes, the complaint results in an arrest warrant. In other instances, the judge issues a compatible warrant

Statutes normally limit filing an application for a complaint to the police officers, prosecutors, victims, or witnesses.

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]