What Is a Criminal "Complaint"?

"Complaint" has a particular meaning in the criminal justice process.

By , Attorney UC Law San Francisco
Updated 5/08/2024

An arrest, by itself, doesn't begin formal criminal proceedings. Rather, the filing of a document in court is required. In most instances in state court, the document is a "complaint."

Complaints can be either civil or criminal. Civil complaints initiate lawsuits, typically between private parties or a private party and the government. Criminal complaints, on the other hand, are almost always filed by the government. (Some states allow citizens to file criminal complaints or applications for them.)

A state prosecution usually begins after a police officer arrests someone and presents the case to the prosecution. The latter then files a complaint, which charges the defendant with the relevant crime(s). So begins the legal process.

A complaint typically lists:

  • the defendant
  • the date of the alleged offenses
  • the alleged offenses (including the relevant statutes, and whether the violations are misdemeanors or felonies), and
  • some kind of description of the alleged facts underlying those offenses.
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