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 probably 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, court-issued document, that charges the suspect, defendant with specific crimes.

As the name implies, an individual is charged with a crime by the criminal complaint. Usually in criminal cases, the police first arrest the suspect, defendant, and then file a report to the local prosecutor. Then, the prosecutor decides whether to formally process charges against the suspect, defendant. The prosecutor’s decision to charge the suspect, defendant, with the crime is based on whether there is enough evidence and whether the case is worth the prosecutor’s time. In some states, the criminal complaint has to 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 by an application for a complaint, along with an affidavit by the complainant, which is titled an affidavit of probable cause. The judge examines the statements in the application and affidavit. In some instances, the judge will hold hearing with notice to the suspect, 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.
Although similar, there are many differences between a “criminal complaint” and a “civil complaint.”

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]