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What Is A Federal Criminal Complaint?

I have been charged in Federal Court with a “Complaint”? What does that mean, and what will happen?

Whether you are a first time offender or a career criminal, these questions can cripple any federal defendant. Not knowing the answers to these questions can make it difficult for you to sleep or leave you unable to eat as you worry about what your future might be. All of these are natural responses when you have unanswered questions about pending federal criminal charges.

In this blog, I will address the legal differences between a “Complaint” and an “indictment”. By reading this blog, you will learn what to expect once a Complaint has been filed or dismissed. The answers you get from this blog will eliminate your fear of the unknown—and might help you to sleep better.

Complaint versus Indictment.

There are two ways criminal charges can be started against a person in federal court: (1) through a grand jury indictment; and, (2) by the filing of a Complaint. A grand jury consists of 16-23 members, or citizens, who hear a presentation of the evidence by the federal prosecutor. If 12 members of the grand jury vote to indict, then criminal charges will start and go forward against the accused.

The second way to initiate federal criminal charges is through a Complaint, which is the focus of this article. A Complaint, according to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, “…is a written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense charged. Except as provided in Rule 4.1, it must be made under oath before a magistrate judge or, if none is reasonably available, before a state or local judicial officer.”

A “Complaint” is a sworn document prepared by the federal prosecutor accusing an individual of a crime. A Complaint contains the factual basis for requesting a warrant or summons in a particular case. The Complaint is supported by an Affidavit executed by a member of law enforcement attesting to the facts necessary to prove each element of a crime. A Complaint streamlines the criminal process by eliminating the need for a grand jury indictment.

It is important to remember that a Complaint can be filed before or after an arrest is made. In some instances, law enforcement may investigate crimes before filing a Complaint. In others, when a crime is interrupted or committed in the presence of law enforcement, an arrest may occur before the filing of a Complaint. For example, consider an arrest of a bank robber in the middle of the robbery. In such a case, the Complaint could be filed after the arrest. Regardless of when the Complaint is filed, it is frequently the instrument for starting the criminal process in federal court.

Every federal criminal prosecution must be based upon a specific federal statute that prohibits the acts you are accused of. A Complaint listing the charges, signed by a Magistrate, is enough to get you into custody, but is not enough for the government to proceed to trial. Within a set period of time (14 days if you are in custody, and 21 days if you are not in custody – Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 5.1), a Complaint must be supported by either the holding of a preliminary exam, or the government filing an indictment before a grand jury.

The preliminary exam is a hearing, in an open courtroom, with the defense participating. At that hearing, the government must present witnesses giving evidence of probable cause to support the complaint.

However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, after the Complaint is issued, or after the defendant’s first appearance in court, the government goes to a grand jury and gets an Indictment, which formally states the charges. At that point, the Complaint is dismissed. Grand jury proceedings are conducted without the defense present. In a small number of cases, usually because they are not ready to indict the defendant for some reason. the government proceeds with the preliminary examination. In federal court, the preliminary examination is rarely held even if scheduled.

What happens now that the Complaint has been filed?

Once the prosecutor submits the Complaint, a magistrate judge will review it. The magistrate judge must determine if the Complaint has established probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed and that the defendant committed it. The magistrate judge can authorize or reject the Complaint based on the probable cause standard. If the magistrate judge finds probable cause of a crime, then he or she can issue a warrant for the defendant’s arrest or alternatively, if requested by the prosecution, can issue a summons. In either scenario, the issuance of a warrant or summons from the Complaint, begins the criminal charges against the defendant.

If the Complaint results in the issuance of a warrant, then law enforcement, typically a U.S. Marshall, will execute the warrant by arresting the defendant. If arrested, the defendant is required by law to be taken before a magistrate judge as soon as possible—usually within 24 hours of the arrest. Conversely, if the Complaint leads the magistrate judge to issue a Summons, then the defendant will receive a future time and date to report to the Court.

What does the Complaint mean for me?

If a Complaint has been filed naming you as a defendant in a federal criminal case, then the most important thing to focus on is the continuation of your freedom. If you are facing a federal felony as a result of the Complaint, then your freedom—both pending trial and in the future—is likely in jeopardy.

While there are other potential ancillary issues as a result of the criminal charges arising from the Complaint—such as marital and family problems, loss of career, and loss of freedom to travel amongst others—the single most important concern for you going forward is doing whatever is legally necessary to remain free of a lengthy prison sentence.

What should I do?

If a Complaint has been filed against you, then you likely have been arrested or will be arrested soon. There are things you can do to help yourself even while facing criminal charges. First and more than anything else, you need to hire a competent and experienced federal defense attorney as soon as you become aware of a Complaint or criminal investigation. There is an abundance of attorneys in the world. However, few possess the knowledge, experience, and talent to handle federal criminal cases. If you hire the wrong attorney, then you will regret it—likely when you are setting in a prison cell.

Second and just as important to hiring the right attorney, you have a panel of Constitutional Rights that have been implicated by your arrest. In the early stages of your case following the filing of the Complaint—and before if you know of an investigation–you have a Fifth Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination. The Right Against Self-Incrimination–or the right to not speak–is one you have and must exercise. Don’t say anything about the circumstances surrounding your case to anybody other than the attorney you hire. Don’t talk to your friends about the case! Don’t’ talk to your family about your case! Don’t talk about your case, Period!


The filing of the Complaint is the beginning of a federal criminal case. If you find yourself as the defendant of a Complaint, then you must take it seriously while recognizing the process is a marathon not a sprint. The challenges you face will test your patience and mental health because your freedom is at risk. Still, there are things I can do to mitigate your situation. If you are the subject of a federal criminal investigation, been arrested, or have been named in a federal Complaint, then don’t wait. Call Mark Satawa today!

Mark Satawa

Mark Satawa is a criminal defense attorney specialized in forensic DNA,
sex crimes, child abuse, shaken baby, medical child abuse, white collar,
and federal crimes.