What are Criminal Complaints?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 30 January 2020
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Criminal complaints are descriptions of criminal activity filed by the victims of that activity. The purpose of a complaint is to make law enforcement and the court system aware that a criminal act occurred. An investigation will be conducted in response to the complaint and if it has merit, charges may be filed to bring the suspected perpetrator into court to answer to the complaint.

One way to file a criminal complaint is to call law enforcement while a crime is occurring. Police officers can arrive, take the perpetrator into custody, and set the wheels in motion to get the case into court. In other cases, people can file criminal complaints after the fact. This usually starts with a report to law enforcement that leads to the generation of a case report. This report can be used when approaching a district attorney or district court to file a criminal complaint.

Investigation of criminal complaints is conducted to determine what happened and whether or not it was criminal in nature. Investigators also consider how likely a successful prosecution will be on the basis of the available information. There may be times when a criminal complaint is filed but no charges are filed. This can be because there is not enough evidence or because a case belongs in civil court. People who have filed criminal complaints can request information about their status to get news about when and if charges will be filed.


Criminal complaints provide a mechanism for people to report criminal activity and request action on it. When a complaint is filed, people will be asked to fill out paperwork documenting the specifics of the situation. The more information available, the easier the complaint will be to investigate. Detailed information about the people involved, the time the event occurred, and where it took place is very helpful. If people have evidence, this should also be brought up so that law enforcement can take action to secure the evidence in case it is needed for a trial.

While criminal complaints do need to be investigated, investigators are not required to file charges. One thing that investigators consider is the cooperation of the victim. Victims who are not interested in pressing charges can make poor witnesses if the complaint results in a trial. Another issue can be whether or not there is enough evidence to support a case in court. People who file complaints that could more appropriately be handled in civil court will be advised of this and may be referred to a lawyer who specializes in civil suits.


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