What Is the Difference Between an Indictment & a Criminal Complaint?

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A criminal complaint is a list of the charges that the prosecuting attorney will file against a person. It typically describes the nature of the offense and can become part of public record. An indictment is a written document presented to a grand jury who decides if the charges warrant further action, such as a trial. It is a formal accusation that is presented by the prosecuting attorney.


The difference between an indictment and a criminal complaint is that the indictment is sworn testimony given under oath, while the complaint is just a signed affidavit by the accuser. In some cases, such as misdemeanors, the proceedings may go forward with just the criminal complaint in hand. But indictments typically require a grand jury decision to move forward with the case.


Typically signed by the accuser, the criminal complaint can also be initiated by a police officer or the district attorney. The criminal complaint is typically drawn up by an attorney and will state the charges involved. In some cases, the complaint is then given to a judge who determines if there is just cause to issue an arrest warrant. In other cases, the complaint is filed with the county clerk or clerk of the court, who then issues a summons to the defendant with instructions on the time frame he has to file an answer.

Grand Jury

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that all capital and "infamous" crimes are heard before a grand jury. The Supreme Court upheld this portion of the Fifth Amendment, adding that it isn't binding on the states. This means that each of the 50 states can use its own grand jury procedures, some of which follow federal laws. Those that don't, allow the prosecutor to file a complaint to formally charge the defendant. When the federal grand jury is used, a panel of ordinary citizens is chosen. This panel investigates the nature of the alleged crime. No judge, defendant or defense attorneys are allowed in the room in a federal grand jury; instead, a federal prosecutor presents the case to the panel.

Silent Indictment

According to Allen Cowling, a false allegation defense specialist in Mississippi, the times that a grand jury returns an indictment without anyone first being arrested is termed a silent indictment (see Reference 3). When this occurs, the person being indicted won't be notified that the case is being heard in front of a grand jury. The defendant won't even be able to testify on his own behalf or present any witnesses. However, according to Federal Crimes Defender (see Reference 5), "The target of the grand jury does not have any right to present evidence in his or her defense." It is advisable to check with an attorney if you are brought up on criminal charges as to what your rights are in grand jury proceedings.


About the Author

Jennifer Sobek has been a writer since 1993, working on collegiate and professional newspapers. Her writing has appeared in the "Copperas Cove Leader Press," "Fort Lewis Ranger," "Suburban Trends" and "The Shopper News," among others. Sobek has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Rowan University.

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