How Are Criminal Charges Filed?

Prosecutors refrain from including extra details. Instead, they only include sufficient facts to indicate they have enough evidence for a jury trial.

Criminal law trials make for great TV. Dramatic illustrations of the criminal procedure show detective work and the arrest before jumping to the trial, but what happens before the trial date is just as important.

This article discusses the three methods used to file charges against suspects, including:

  • A complaint filed by a district attorney
  • A grand jury indictment for a felony criminal offense
  • A citation by law enforcement

Criminal Complaints

The first way a criminal trial can start is with a document called the information, or in many jurisdictions, the complaint. If there is one, the prosecutor writes this charging document before the preliminary hearing. There is no preliminary hearing for misdemeanor crimes. The complaint gives the defense notice of what charges are being brought against their client.

In the complaint, the prosecutor briefly recites the following:

  • A brief summary of the facts that led to formal charges
  • Elements of the offense and inferences of the defendant's guilt
  • The date, location, and names of those involved, such as the crime victim

For example, a theft complaint might look like this:

"On or about [date], in [city, county, state], [defendant] did, without permission, use or exercise control of [object], the property of [the victim], with the intent to deprive [the victim] of the property."

The substance of the information will come from the police report and other documents produced through the police investigation. It can also come from complaints brought by citizens. Some jurisdictions begin the process with an application for a complaint. An affidavit by the complainant must accompany the application.

For example, a witness to a felony case of domestic violence may file an application on behalf of the victim. Statutes limit the application for a complaint to the following people:

  • A law enforcement agency
  • A crime victim
  • An accompanying witness

In the federal system, a prosecutor can bring misdemeanor charges by information or complaint. Felony charges are only brought by complaint if the defense waives the right to a grand jury.


The second way a criminal trial can start is through a grand jury indictment. Prosecutors use this method because the law requires it for felonies in most states, and the Fifth Amendment requires it for federal felony prosecutions. The grand jury's purpose is to determine whether to bring charges against a criminal defendant. Some prosecutors use it as a test trial.

The prosecuting attorney reviews the evidence and prepares an indictment document to submit to the grand jury. The prosecutor will present evidence supporting that indictment to the grand jury. The grand jury can hear from witnesses and question witnesses directly. They can also hear evidence that is likely inadmissible in trial court.

The grand jury will then decide which charges in the indictment, if any, are actually supported by probable cause and will proceed. Upon handing down an indictment, criminal charges get filed in district court. The defendant then goes through arraignment, the first appearance in the criminal trial process.

Citation by Law Enforcement

The third way to bring a criminal charge is the easiest. A police officer sees someone committing a minor crime and writes up a ticket, also known as a citation. Examples of petty crimes include the following:

  • Speeding
  • Jaywalking
  • Littering

State statutes determine which crimes can get charged via a citation. Often, these are minor infractions, not punishable by prison time. The person who receives the ticket can contest it in court. Often, they may be able to pay a fine to resolve the matter without any further court hearings.

However, this method of charging crimes is always subject to review by the prosecutor once the defendant arrives in court. Police officers are not trained as lawyers. Sometimes, they issue citations that a prosecutor would disapprove. Once court proceedings begin, prosecutors can review the officer's charging decision. They can override it with a dismissal of the charge.

Importance of the Pre-trial Period

The pre-trial phase is by far the most important phase of a criminal case and ultimately shapes the outcome of the case.

The court appearances during the pre-trial and trial phase must adhere to several constitutional protections that prevent abuse by the government. The defense team can:

  • Object in pre-trial motions to particular items of evidence, such as witnesses or confessions, to prevent their admission at trial
  • Share favorable (exculpatory) evidence with the prosecution that tends to exonerate the accused
  • Share mitigating circumstances that might cause the prosecutor to be more lenient, such as a history of mental illness or reduced cognitive capacity
  • Negotiate a guilty plea for reduced charges or lighter punishment

More than 90% of criminal cases get resolved via plea bargain before trial. In federal cases, that number is as high as 97% for plea agreements.

Consult an Attorney To Discuss Your Case

The criminal justice system can seem terrifying and confusing whether you're facing criminal charges for the first time or have a criminal record. Having an attorney present can make an enormous difference in the outcome.

Contact a local criminal defense attorney to discuss the facts of your case. Alternatively, a public defender is available at no cost if you cannot afford a private defendant's attorney.

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