An indictment, an information, and a criminal complaint are charging instruments that set forth criminal charges against a defendant and the basis for probable cause to believe the defendant committed a crime.
If a grand jury decides the evidence presented establishes probable cause, it issues an indictment against the accused. In federal criminal prosecutions, at least 12 jurors must vote to indict. The indictment is called a true bill. If the grand jury does not find sufficient probable cause, it returns a no bill.
In a misdemeanor case—or in a felony case where the accused has waived indictment and has agreed to plead guilty—the matter is not presented to the grand jury. In those instances, an information, which is a document outlining probable cause, is filed with the federal district court.
And a criminal complaint is often filed when prosecutors want to make an arrest quickly because a crime is about to occur, or has just occurred. In such a situation prosecutors may not have time to use the grand jury process and will instead file a written criminal complaint, together with an affidavit signed by a government agent familiar with the case. A judge or magistrate judge will then review the complaint and affidavit and issue an arrest warrant if the judge finds probable cause. After an arrest is made based on a criminal complaint, federal law requires the defendant be charged by an indictment—or by a criminal information if it is a misdemeanor case or a felony case where the accused has waived indictment and has agreed to plead guilty—within 30 days.
In state criminal prosecutions, the use of an indictment, information, or complaint as the charging instrument varies from state to state. The requirements and circumstances for such charging instruments are generally located in a state’s statutes—often in the penal or criminal code, or the code of criminal procedure.