Criminal Charges

Complaint or Indictment

The criminal justice system is designed to separate the investigation from the charging decision.   A police investigation should be independent and complete before prosecutors get involved or 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 should review case investigation files received from police, and begin their review in consideration of charging a crime.  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 must use prosecutorial 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 are charged with crimes turn out to have been falsely accused; to have been innocent-in-fact.

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

An Indictment documents the decision of a Grand Jury convened by a prosecutor to consider available information on whether to charge a person with a crime.  These are one-sided proceedings with 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.

Fountain_in_Government_Center-smMost cases in Minnesota District Court begin with a charging document called a Complaint.  (In United States District Court, the alternative to an Indictment is called 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 target.  But after, the person is 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.

Citation or Tab Charge
In most cases involving claims of traffic violations, a police officer will issue the driver a uniform traffic citation 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.  More often these days the citation requires the person to respond to the court to get a court date arranged (unless it is a payable citation and the person does not want to fight it in court).

A “tab charge” is a charge initiated by a police officer or prosecutor without a written Complaint.  A Complaint is required 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 claimed to be a criminal act by the accused, with a brief description of that statute.  An example could be, “Disorderly Conduct, Minnesota Statutes Section 609.72, Subd. 1 (3).”   (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, but both tend to be used in non-felony cases.

If the defendant has not already retained a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer, once charged with a crime, he or she will now need to do so.

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.