Criminal complaints: starting a case in criminal court

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

Some people want the criminal court involved when they have been abused. There are many reasons why someone might want to file criminal charges against the person who abused them. But there are also reasons why someone might not want the criminal court involved. All of these reasons are good reasons.

Criminal charges are most likely to go forward if the police are involved. So if you want there to be criminal charges against the abusive person, it is a good idea to file a police report first. 

If you do not want to get the police involved, or if the police decide not to press charges, you can file a criminal complaint yourself.

A criminal complaint is what causes someone to be charged with a crime. This is the first step in starting a criminal case. Filing a criminal complaint against someone doesn’t automatically mean they will be charged. There has to be a Clerk Magistrate hearing first to decide whether to issue the complaint.

Why would I want to file criminal charges against the abusive person?

You might want to file criminal charges against the abusive person because:

  • It might show the abusive person that you are serious about stopping the abuse.
  • There would be a court record about the abuse. If the abuse happens again, the court might be more likely to send the abusive person to jail or counseling.
  • The court might order your abuser to get treatment or attend an intimate partner abuse education program as a consequence of a criminal case.
  • In the future you may need to prove that you were abused so that you can get custody of your child, or get emergency public housing or other benefits. A criminal case against the abusive person helps show that you were abused. Police reports and restraining orders are other ways to prove abuse.
Why might I not want to file criminal charges against the abusive person?

Many people decide not to file criminal charges against the people who abused them. Sometimes people think the court will not do anything. Sometimes people are scared that the abusive person will hurt them more if they decide to press charges. Filing criminal charges against someone doesn’t mean the person will be found guilty. Most people don’t go to jail even if they are found guilty of a crime for the first time.


Keep in mind that if the abusive person is arrested or the police file charges against them, you do not get to choose whether there is a criminal case. You can not “drop the charges” on your own. See “Will I have any say in how the criminal case goes” below.

If you decide to press criminal charges, your safety plan should include how you will stay safe during this process. It is always a good idea to call a domestic violence program and speak to an advocate who can help you decide what to include in your safety plan. Contact the Safelink Domestic Violence Hotline to get help with safety planning.

If the abusive person is charged with a crime, will I have any say in how the criminal case goes?

You can decide to call the police or not. You can decide to file a criminal complaint yourself or not.
But if the police arrest the abusive person, the decision to start a criminal case is not just yours. The process will start whether you are ready for it or not.

Once the police arrest the abusive person or a criminal complaint issues against them, it is up to the District Attorney's (DA's) office to prosecute the case (make it go forward). The DA's office might ask you what you want to happen in the case, but it is their case, not yours. The DA’s office is not your lawyer. The criminal case is the state against the abusive person, not you against the abusive person. The name of the case will be the Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. (abusive person's name).

If you change your mind and want to stop the criminal case, the DA's office might agree to "drop" the charges. But they might not be willing to drop the case if they have enough evidence to go forward without you. If the DA's office wants to go forward with the case and needs your testimony, they can "subpoena" you. This means they can get the court to order you to testify in a trial.

The DA’s office might talk to you about the case as it is moving forward. They might ask your opinion about things like:

  • the kind of sentence the abusive person should get,
  • if the abusive person gets probation, the rules they should have to follow (the "terms of their probation"),
  • if the abusive person should go to an intimate partner abuse education program, and
  • the types of “plea bargains” that sound fair to you. A “plea bargain” is a deal between the DA’s office and the person accused of a crime. If they agree to plead guilty and give up their right to a trial, they might get charged with a less serious crime and get a lighter sentence.

If the criminal case goes to trial, it is up to the judge or the jury to decide if the person who abused you is guilty or not guilty. If the abusive person is found guilty, the DA’s office will ask the judge to give the abusive person a particular sentence, or punishment. You might be able to talk about how you were impacted by the crime and give your opinion on what should happen. In the end it will not be your decision. The judge will decide the sentence. 

How do I file criminal charges?

If the police are not involved or they decide not to press charges (“police complaint”), you can file a criminal complaint yourself (“civilian complaint”) to ask for criminal charges against the abusive person. 

Go to the clerk's office in your local District Court and ask for a Criminal Complaint form.

Part of the form will ask you what happened. You should fill this out carefully because it will be part of your statement to the court. You can also attach a police report about what happened if you have one.

If you have trouble filling out this form or you need other help with your case, you can ask for help from the clerk’s office. The clerk may be able to tell you how to find someone at the court to help you with the paperwork.

Once you have filled the form out, give it to the clerk to file.

Where can I file a criminal complaint?

You can file a criminal complaint at the District Court in or near the town where the crime happened. Where the crime happened may be different from where you live or where the abusive person lives.

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