Private Criminal Complaints
The police normally bring charges against persons who have committed crimes. The Office of the District Attorney urges persons who believe they have been the victims of a crime to report the crime to their local police department. The police have the training, experience, and knowledge to enable them to determine where jurisdiction lies, conduct an investigation, determine if a crime has been committed, and then the legal knowledge and expertise necessary to file the appropriate criminal charges.
The Law & Criminal Charges
Pennsylvania Law does, however, permit an individual to file criminal charges against another person on his or her own. Rule 506 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure permits an individual to file a private criminal complaint before a district justice. If you file a private criminal complaint, you become the affiant, or the person making the allegation just as if you were a police officer.
The same rules apply to you in filing charges that apply to a police officer. A mere allegation is not sufficient to initiate criminal charges. Filing a private criminal complaint in no way guarantees that criminal charges will be filed. Just as a police officer must do, you must demonstrate that probable cause exists that the person you wish to have arrested committed a crime. Probable cause is the legal standard of proof that our courts require in order for charges to be filed. In other than summary offenses, the district attorney must approve every private criminal complaint before a district justice is permitted to issue process.
The Filing Procedure
First, you must obtain a Private Criminal Complaint. The complaint form is available from a district justice, or you can download the form from the website of the Administrative Offices of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC). Complete the private criminal complaint, providing a thorough and detailed explanation of the facts and circumstances that cause you to believe a crime was committed and what crime or crimes you are alleging were committed.
Secondly you must complete a Private Criminal Complaint Information Form. This is a form used by the Office of the District Attorney to collect additional information not asked on the Private Criminal Complaint. The form is available from a district justice.
Return the completed forms to the Magisterial District Court that has jurisdiction for the location where the crime occurred. If you are the owner or representative of a business filing a charge theft of leased property, be certain that you have followed the mandated notification requirements of the 18 Pa. C.S. §3932 and that you include with the Private Criminal Complaint a copy of your letter to the defendant demanding payment for or return of the property, and a copy of the postal service certified mail receipt and return receipt card.
The Approval Procedure
The district justice will forward your forms to the Office of the District Attorney, where they will be assigned to an assistant district attorney. The assistant district attorney can approve or disapprove the complaint immediately, but will usually forward the complaint to a county detective who will conduct an investigation of the crime or crimes you have alleged.
With the additional information provided by the investigation, the Assistant District Attorney will then make a determination if probable cause exists to justify the filing of the charges. If the assistant district attorney determines that based upon the facts, circumstances, and the law that probable cause exists, the complaint will be approved and returned to the district justice to issue process.
If the Assistant District Attorney determines that probable cause does not exist, the complaint will not be approved, and returned to the district justice who will notify you that process will not be issued.
Steps to Take Upon Approval
If the private criminal complaint is approved and process is issued, you must appear at any and all court proceedings that result and you will be responsible for providing the district justice with the names and addresses of all persons you wish called as witnesses on your behalf.
In Pennsylvania, crimes are classified as summary offenses, misdemeanor offenses, and felony offenses. Summary offenses are the least serious crimes, such as:
- Defiant trespass
- Disorderly conduct
A district justice does not need to obtain the approval of the Office of the District Attorney for the issuance of process for a summary offense, but can approve or disapprove the complaint at his/her discretion.
Issue process is the filing of charges which results in issuance of a summons to the defendant ordering him or her to answer the charges alleged on the Private Criminal Complaint Form. In some cases, a warrant of arrest is issued rather than a summons.