What is a citizen complaint?
A citizen complaint is a written request, signed under oath and filed with the Court, asking that a criminal charge be filed against another person. It does not automatically result in criminal charges. Instead, it is reviewed by a prosecutor (an attorney with the Office of the City Attorney) to see if there is enough information to file the charge.
Why might a citizen complaint be refused?
Because an accepted complaint results in a criminal accusation, and in any criminal prosecution the State has the burden to prove each element of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor must determine if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the crime. That means there must be evidence to support each element of the alleged offense. If any element is lacking sufficient support, no prosecution will be undertaken. There are also limits on the Court’s jurisdiction, concerning both the types of criminal charges (the Court handles only Class C misdemeanors) and location (the offense must have occurred in the City of Garland), so the citizen complaint may be refused if a higher level offense is described, if no Class C misdemeanor occurred, or if the offense happened elsewhere. Often a citizen complaint may be denied merely for lack of information – failing to give enough information to identify the correct offender, or failing to describe the alleged offense in sufficient detail. The person filing the citizen complaint is notified if the complaint is refused.
What happens if a citizen complaint is accepted?
If a citizen complaint is accepted, then the charge is officially filed with the Court by the prosecutor. The accused person, now called the defendant, will then be notified of the charge and given a date by which they must appear at Court to answer it. They will have all of the usual options anyone with a citation may have, including paying a “window fine” (an amount set by the judge as the default fine for a particular offense) or setting the case for a pretrial hearing. They may also hire an attorney to represent them in Court. If the defendant pleads not guilty plea and requests a trial, then the complaining witness will be notified to appear and testify at trial. In Texas, virtually all criminal defendants (even those charged with only a Class C misdemeanor) may request a jury trial. The same procedural rules, the same burdens of proof, and the same Constitutional protections that apply in a capital murder trial apply to even minor charges in Municipal Court. In representing the people of Texas in a criminal prosecution, prosecutors are sworn to uphold the Constitution and the laws of this State and to seek justice – not convictions.
When a citizen complaint is accepted, does the person filing it have to present the case to the Court?
No. All criminal charges are brought by and in the name of the State of Texas, and are presented by the State acting through the prosecutor. If the defendant maintains a not guilty plea and sets the case for trial, the person filing the complaint (now called the complaining witness) is summoned to appear at trial to testify. The complaining witness must appear and testify against the defendant. If they fail to do so, the case will likely be dismissed. Even though a complaining witness may see themselves as having a personal stake in the outcome of a prosecution, the law is designed to vindicate the rights of the people of Texas, not necessarily an individual complainant.
What can a person do to make it more likely that a citizen complaint is accepted?
As noted above, many complaints are rejected merely for lack of information. The Court needs to be assured that the correct person is being charged with the crime and be able to contact them, so identifying information about the defendant (including current address, phone, race, sex, and date of birth) is essential. The prosecutor is also checking for evidence to prove each element of the offense, so the more detailed the description of the occurrence (including in many cases events leading to the offense), the better. And since the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt, having extra witnesses to the offense is good – and hard evidence, such as photographs or audio or video recordings, is even better.
What should a person do if their complaint is rejected?
A person can refile the citizen complaint with more details if the denial was due to insufficient information, and it will be reviewed again. If the offense alleged was higher than a Class C misdemeanor, they should contact the police department if they have not done so already. Finally, the decision not to initiate criminal charges does not affect any potential civil action arising out of the alleged conduct. The person whose complaint has been denied is encouraged to consult a private attorney to discuss their rights. The Office of the City Attorney is prohibited, under the rules governing attorney conduct, from providing legal advice to individual citizens.