Filing a Complaint under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure


Most criminal prosecutions begin with the filing of a criminal complaint against someone. The U.S. Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure specify how this is to be done and what should be in the complaint. An improperly worded complaint could delay prosecution and even result in difficulty convicting the defendant.

Form AO91

  • The official form used to file a federal criminal complaint is Form AO91 (see Respurces). You will have to provide your name, the name of the defendant, the location of the crime, the federal criminal statute that the defendant violated and the facts upon which your complaint is based.

Legal Issues

  • You must determine which federal criminal statute that the defendant violated. Federal criminal statutes are located at Title 18 of the US Code (see Resources). Since most criminal laws are state laws, you may find that the defendant violated no federal statute. In this case, the government of the state where the crime occurred will have jurisdiction over the case, and you will have to file a complaint with the appropriate state court.

Factual Issues

  • You should clearly state the facts upon which your complaint is based. The facts that you allege should be sufficient to establish that the defendant would be guilty of the violating the federal criminal statute that you identified in your complaint if they were proved to be true. If your facts are insufficient, the complaint could be dismissed for "failure to state a claim." You should be as specific as possible. Merely stating that the defendant threatened to kill you, for example, may not be enough--you should quote the defendant's exact words to the best of your recollection.


  • You will have to swear under oath that the content of your complaint is true to the best of your knowledge before a federal magistrate or a state or local judicial officer, who will then file your complaint with the appropriate federal prosecutor's office. An intentionally false statement in a criminal complaint could subject you to criminal liability for perjury, which is in some cases classified as a felony.

Pressing Charges

  • You cannot decide on your own whether or not to "press charges"--the decision to prosecute rests with the prosecutor's office. If the prosecutor finds your complaint to be without merit, she is under no obligation to prosecute. On the other hand, if you forgive the defendant after filing a complaint against him, you will not be able to halt a prosecution if the prosecutor determines your original complaint had merit--in fact, you may be forced to testify against the defendant.


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