What is a Criminal Complaint?


A criminal complaint is the way that some criminal cases begin. They are essentially the documents that are filed in the legal system that formally accuse a person of having committed a crime. However, not all crimes require a criminal complaint, nor do all courts.

Whether or not a criminal complaint is filed depends upon:

What Does a Criminal Complaint Specifically Contain?

Despite some differences, both federal and state criminal complaints have some common elements. At both court levels, a complaint will:

  • Be a formally written list of charges, filed by the prosecution, against the accused (defendant)
  • Always contains the facts of the case that compose the grounds for the criminal charges
  • Enumerate the particular law, statute, or regulation that the defendant is charged with breaking
  • Be made under oath, i.e. the party filing the charge, typically the prosecutor, has sworn that the contents of the complaint are accurate and the whole truth
  • Be filed prior or after the individual is charged and arrested for the crime. The complaint can be filed like a request for a warrant to arrest the individual. In this sense it must demonstrate probable cause, i.e. how and why you are likely to have committed the crime. Once this paperwork is filed, if a judge agrees with the reasoning in the document, you will receive a summons to appear in court or be arrested.

I Got a Federal Criminal Complaint. What Now?

Federal criminal complaints tend to be more serious as they involve crimes against the federal government. If you are accused of a felony by the federal government, for example, a complaint may be filed against you. Before the case can be taken to a trial, however, a grand jury must approve the indictment. A federal grand jury is composed of 23 citizens (often fewer at the state level) who hear the case and examine the evidence that the federal government has against you. They then decide whether or not there is probable cause that you committed the crime in question.

What Types of Crimes Result in Criminal Complaints?

A federal felony is classified as any crime that can be punished by death or incarceration of more than one year. Examples of federal felonies include robbing a bank and homicide (murder). A misdemeanor, by contrast, is punishable by one year or less in jail and/or a fine. Federal misdemeanors, which don’t require a grand jury indictment, include trespassing on federal land or theft of under $1,000 of federal property.

For more information about criminal complaints, get in touch with Madrid Law at 713-877-9400 and schedule a free case evaluation.

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