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Minnesota Court Process Guide » Criminal Charges Filed | Charging Document

Criminal Charges Filed | Charging Document

What is the charging document in a criminal case?

A charging document in a criminal case is first written notice of criminal charges.  A criminal Complaint and a Grand Jury Indictment are the two main types of charging documents.  A prosecuting attorney writes them.

A police officer can also write a citation charging a misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor in Minnesota.  We also often call many of these a traffic ticket or uniform traffic citation, and a “tab charge.”

When a police officer writes citations tab charging a petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor; they are subject to later review by a prosecuting attorney.

The prosecutor or police officer writing the charging document must:

  • send a copy to the person accused, and
  • file it with the court.

The type of charging document (e.g., Indictment, Complaint, Citation) used depends upon the severity level of the criminal charge

The filing of the charging document with the court, is a significant step in the court process.

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Attorney Gallagher: criminal charge, Complaint, Indictment

Criminal Charges

The criminal justice system separates the investigation, from the charging decision.

A police investigation should be independent and complete before prosecutors begin to make a charging decision. 

After police complete their investigation, they clear their case, wrap it up; they then may deliver the documentation of their investigation to prosecutors.

Then an experienced prosecutor reviews case investigation files received from police, and begins a review to consider criminal charges.

The word “charge” means an unproven claim.

Prosecutors charge a crime when they believe, with their second-hand information; that they have “probable cause” to suspect that a person committed a crime. A criminal charge is just an unproven claim, nothing more.

Charging discretion: most serious, provable offense

Traditionally, prosecutors sought to charge the most serious, provable offense.  In doing so, they use prosecutor discretion to prioritize based both on limited resources and perception of the interests of justice.  Not every case where some evidence of a crime exists can or will be prosecuted.  And of course many people who face criminal charges turn out to have been falsely accused; to have been innocent-in-fact.

“Prosecutors have a general duty of fairness. The prosecutor “may prosecute with earnestness and vigor — indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones.”

The United States Supreme Court, in Berger v. United States, (1935) 295 U.S. 78, 88).

Complaint, or Indictment: criminal charges

When a prosecutor decides to prosecute a person based on someone’s claim, they prepare a charging document. And then they file it with the court.  The two main types of charging documents in Minnesota are a criminal Complaint and a Grand Jury Indictment.  Both contain criminal charges.

Courthouse in Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Government Center, indictment
Courthouse in Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Government Center

An Indictment documents the decision of a Grand Jury. A prosecutor convenes a Grand Jury to consider available information on whether to file criminal charges against a person.

Only one-side presents information to the Grand Jury.  There is no defense lawyer, no judge.  The prosecuting attorney is the only voice present, other than witnesses and members of the Grand Jury. 

An Indictment filed with the court is a charging document.  Prosecutors use Indictments in both Minnesota state and federal Courts.

But prosecutors use Indictments as the most common type of charging document in federal court.

Most cases in Minnesota District Court begin with a charging document called a Complaint.  (In United States District Court, the alternative to criminal charges in an Indictment, is an Information or a Complaint.)

A criminal Complaint must include probable cause claims and allegations of fact, signed under oath; filed by a prosecuting attorney claiming a person committed a crime.

The filing of a Complaint with the District Court is an important marker of where an accused person stands.  Before, the person may be a witness, a suspect or a target.  But after, the person is may be a defendant with a pending criminal case.

A prosecutor or a court may mail the defendant the Complaint with a Summons listing a court appearance date for arraignment; or, may cause the court to issue an Arrest Warrant.

Don't let them hang a false criminal charge on you. indictment.
Don’t let them hang a false criminal charge on you

Defense Motions to Dismiss the Complaint

A criminal defense lawyer, like Thomas Gallagher, can ask a judge to dismiss criminal charges in the Complaint.

We ask with a Motion to Dismiss, sometimes with a Motion to Suppress Illegal Evidence. 

Lack of probable cause

One type of pre-trial motion to dismiss is based on a lack of “probable cause” for the charge. The legal concept of probable cause can be difficult. One reason for that is the probable cause means different things depending upon what the term references. For example, we could look at:

  • probable cause to search
  • arrest probable cause
  • prosecutor’s probable cause to file a Complaint (charging PC)
  • probable cause sufficient to bind the case over for trial (Florence)

If a judge dismisses the Complaint or some of the charges in the Complaint for lack of probable cause, this can protect the defendant from some legal consequences. These may include things like certain expungement remedies, predatory offender registration, etc.

Contested Omnibus Hearing

The judge hears these pretrial defense motions at the Contested Omnibus Hearing

When the judge agrees, the court dismisses some of the criminal charges, or the entire Complaint.

Attorney Thomas Gallagher has successfully moved to dismiss where the prosecutor made a mistake; or failed to allege facts that would equate to guilt of the crime charged. He’s also been successful persuading a judge to suppress evidence. And then evidence was lacking to support the charge.

Mind-gap-300 indictment
Gap between Facts and Charges

Citation or Tab Charge: criminal charges

In most cases involving traffic violation or driving offense claims, a police officer issues the driver a uniform traffic citationor traffic ticket. And the citation requires a response of either payment of a “payable” violation or a court appearance.  (A “payable” offense offers a guilty plea by payment without appearance, often for selected misdemeanor charges.) Years ago, a court date to appear would appear on the citation.  Today, Minnesota citations instruct the recipient to contact the court to arrange a court date, if they want that option. Though most citations written by police officers are traffic tickets, not all are.

What is a tab charge? A “tab charge” contains criminal charges without a written Complaint.  Prosecutors can file tab charges, too.

Court rules require a written Complaint in felony and most gross misdemeanor cases.

But they do not require a Complaint in simple misdemeanor case, unless demanded by the defendant.

A tab charge simply lists the Minnesota Statute Section that the police officer claims to be a violation. While a Complaint includes claims of facts asserted to show probable cause of guilt; a tab charge does not.

A Minnesota traffic ticket or citation includes a tab charge
Minnesota traffic ticket or citation: “tab charge

A traffic ticket tab charges a traffic violation.

An example of a tab charge could be, “Disorderly Conduct, Minnesota Statutes Section 609.72, Subd. 1 (3),” with no allegations of fact.  (Note that even though the defendant has the right to demand a written Complaint from the prosecutor; defense attorneys rarely view making such a demand as helpful.)

A citation is different from a tab charge. It is a type of Summons to appear in court with a tab charge. But prosecutor can add a tab charge in court, for example. And both are for non-felony cases.

FAQ: “Do I need a lawyer now that I face criminal charges?”

After charges, you now need a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer.

After an arrest on an arrest warrant, or if in jail on a probable cause hold; the court will soon hold a Bail Hearing.

So learn about How to Get Out of Jail After Arrest – Tips for Getting Her Out.

And after that comes the Arraignment or First Appearance.

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Do you have a question about a Minnesota criminal charge? Call Criminal Defense Lawyer Thomas Gallagher at 612 333-1500.

Minnesota Crimes

Criminal Defenses in Minnesota

What is criminal evidence?

Steps in Minnesota’s Criminal Court Process

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