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A criminal charge involves a criminal complaint, or an “accusatory instrument,” which is the papers filed that accuse someone of committing a crime.

There are two delineating criteria factored into considering if a criminal complaint is to be used in a case. One factor looks at whether state or federal laws were broken, which usually determines what court a trial may be held in. Another depends on the nature of the crime and whether it constitutes a serious felony or a less serious misdemeanor. Since different jurisdictions with differing rules and regulations may be involved, it is vitally important to speak with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to determine how to proceed, should you be charged criminally.

An accusatory instrument/criminal complaint (initially laid by the police) eventually wends its way to a prosecutor. This instrument, or charge, is the beginning of a criminal prosecution or trial. The charge, or papers that constitute the charge, are filed in court and contain the details of the crime and the individuals that allegedly committed the crime. However, this does not happen in every criminal case or in every court.

A criminal complaint may be filed either before or after an accused is arrested. A complaint filed in advance of someone being arrested states that a crime was committed (usually referred to as a warrant that shows probable cause), what that crime was, what law was broken, etc., and that the named individual in the complaint is the one who did the deed. If a judge agrees with the complaint as filed, one of two things happen: the named individual is sent a summons with information on when and where to appear in court, or they are arrested.

Criminal complaints, federally or at the state level, do have several things in common. An example is a detailed, written list of what criminal charges may be filed. Appended to the list are specific facts and details pertaining to the case — facts that outline the crime an individual may be facing. Case facts tend to dictate which law or state or federal statute the alleged perpetrator is accused of breaking. Before filing a criminal complaint, the prosecutor must swear an oath that the complaint, as set out, is accurate and truthful.

If you are charged with a misdemeanor the U.S. prosecutor may or may not file a complaint. Federal misdemeanors are those with jail terms of a year or less, a fine or both. These cases typically go straight to trial and do not require a grand jury indictment.

Not all people who commit crimes have a criminal complaint filed against them. That is optional on the part of the U.S. prosecutor dealing with the case. It depends on whether a state or federal law was violated, how serious the crime is and whether it is a federal felony or a misdemeanor. Federal felonies (usually punishable by a prison sentence of more than a year or death) are far more serious than misdemeanors, but in order for the federal prosecutor to take an accused to trial for a felony, a grand jury indictment is required under the auspices of the Fifth Amendment.

State rules are entirely different from federal rules and for this reason anyone trying to navigate the criminal justice system on their own is likely to find themselves in need of help. If you are facing criminal charges at the state or federal level, reach out and connect with an experienced criminal defense attorney. The rest of your life depends on it.

Thomas C .Grajek is a criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, Lakeland, and Polk County Florida. To contact a Lakeland criminal defense lawyer or to learn more, visit or call 863-688-4606.

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