How Do Criminal Charges Issue?

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When an individual is charged with a crime over which the District Court has jurisdiction (all misdemeanors, felonies punishable of a sentence of up to five years and certain other felonies), a criminal complaint issues against them. A criminal complaint is the document that identifies the crime that is alleged to have been committed. Before a criminal complaint can issue, there must be a finding by a magistrate that there is probable cause for the complaint to issue. A magistrate is a District Court official who is authorized by law to authorize the issuance of criminal complaints and issue process (such as an arrest warrant or summons). Probable cause is a very low standard; it simply means that reasonably trustworthy information exists that is sufficient to warrant a prudent person to believe that a crime has been committed and the accused is the perpetrator.

If the crime at issue is a felony, the police may apply for the issuance of a criminal complaint and the magistrate may issue the complaint without a hearing or any notice to the defendant. In that scenario, the magistrate must make a finding of probable cause before issuing the complaint, based upon information provided by the applicant (typically a police department). The information provided by the police often takes the form of a police report related to the event on which the potential charge is based. If the magistrate finds that probable cause exists and issues the complaint, the magistrate may also issue an arrest warrant that authorizes the police to arrest the defendant and bring the defendant to court to be arraigned on the charge. If the magistrate does not issue an arrest warrant, the court will send notice to the defendant that the complaint has issued and the matter has been scheduled for arraignment.

The police may arrest an individual even if a criminal complaint has not yet issued if they conclude that there is probable cause to believe the individual has committed a crime. In that circumstance, the police may take the individual into custody and then apply for the issuance of a criminal complaint. If the magistrate issues the complaint, the defendant will usually be arraigned on the charges before being released.

If the potential crime is a misdemeanor and occurs in the presence of a police officer, the officer may arrest the individual and apply for a complaint in the same manner as if the offense had been a felony. However, if the misdemeanor crime to be charged did not occur in a police officer’s presence, with a few exceptions the matter must be scheduled for a hearing before a magistrate, also known as a show-cause hearing. At that hearing, the person to be charged will have an opportunity to hear the evidence against them, to present evidence on their own behalf and to be heard on whether the complaint should issue against them.

Any natural person (including a person who is acting on behalf of an entity) may apply for the issuance of a criminal complaint by filing an application for a complaint. When someone who is not a police officer applies for the issuance of a criminal complaint, the matter is usually scheduled for a magistrate’s hearing. If a criminal complaint issues at the hearing, the case will be prosecuted by a representative of the Commonwealth, usually a prosecutor employed by the Office of the District Attorney for the county in which the crime allegedly occurred.

If you have been charged with a crime, Fitch Law Partners LLP can guide you through the process of defending against the charges. Please contact us at (617) 542-5542 for more information.


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