Criminal Charges

What is the charging document in a criminal case?

Criminal Attorney Thomas Gallagher explains criminal charges, Complaints and Indictments
Criminal Attorney Thomas Gallagher explains criminal charges, Complaints and Indictments

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 write a citation charging a misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor in Minnesota.  We also often call many of these a traffic ticket or a traffic citation, and a tab charge.  When police writes citations tab charging a petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor, they are subject to review by a prosecuting attorney.

The prosecutor or police officer writing the charging document must give a copy to the person accused, and file it with the court.  The type of charging document used depends upon the severity level of the criminal charge.  The filing of the charging document is a significant step in the court process.

Criminal Charges

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

A police investigation should be independent and complete before prosecutors make a charging decision.  After police complete their investigation, they clear their case, wrap it up, and then may deliver the documentation of their investigation to prosecutors.

Then an experienced prosecutor reviews case investigation files received from police, and begins their review in consideration of criminal charges.

The word “charge” means an unproven claim which prosecutors believe based upon the second-hand information available, gives them “probable cause” to believe an accused person committed a crime.

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 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.

Complaint or Indictment

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

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

An Indictment documents the decision of a Grand Jury convened by a prosecutor to consider available information on whether to file criminal charges against a person.  Only one-side presents 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.  Though Indictments are used in both Minnesota state and federal District Courts, they are more often used 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 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 targetBut after, the person is may be a defendant with a pending criminal case.

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

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.  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.

Gallagher has filed successful motion 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.

Citation or Tab Charge

In most cases involving claims of traffic violations, a police officer will issue the driver a uniform traffic citation, or traffic ticket, which requires a response of either payment of a “payable” violation (meaning payment without a court appearance), or a court appearance.  Sometimes there is a court date to appear on the citation.  Not all citations written by police officers are traffic tickets, though most are.

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

Today many courts require the person to respond to the court to arrange a court date (unless it is a payable citation and the person does not want to fight it in court).

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

Court rules require a Complaint in felony and most gross misdemeanor cases, but not in simple misdemeanor cases unless demanded by the defendant.

A tab charge is simply a citation to the Minnesota Statute Section that the police officer claims to be a violation by the accused, with a brief description of that statute.  While a Complaint includes claims of facts asserted to show probable cause of guilt, a tab charge does not.  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 it is the defendant’s right to demand a written Complaint from the prosecutor, defense attorneys rarely view making such a demand as desirable, with limited exceptions.)

A citation is different from a tab charge.  A prosecutor can add a tab charge in court, for example.  But both are for non-felony cases.

“Do I need a lawyer now that I have criminal charges?” 

If the defendant has not already retained a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer, after charging he or she will now need to do so.

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If arrested on an arrest warrant (or if already detained in jail on a law enforcement probable cause hold), the defendant will soon be brought before a judge for a Bail Hearing (or Pre-trial Detention Hearing).  For more about that see this page: Arraignment or First Appearance.

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