Many people believe that criminal charges arise only after a person has been arrested. But that’s not necessarily accurate. You can be charged with a crime even if police have not taken you into custody. This typically happens when a citation, summons, or arrest warrant has been issued in your name.
Even though you weren’t arrested before being charged, your case must still proceed through the same justice process as someone who was initially taken into custody.
What Is a Criminal Charge?
Before discussing how you can be criminally charged without being arrested, let’s first explore what it means to be charged with a crime.
A criminal charge is an official accusation that you have been involved in illegal activity. Much happens before the charge is made.
First, law enforcement officials receive a report that you have committed a crime (or a police officer observes you engaged in unlawful conduct). Authorities investigate to determine whether probable cause exists to believe that an offense happened and you were the one who did it. The investigation can include talking to witnesses, going through reports and other documents, and reviewing surveillance footage, among other things.
After law enforcement officials have completed their investigation, they’ll summarize what happened in a report and send that document, along with supporting evidence, to the District Attorney’s office. A prosecutor will read the report and examine the evidence to decide whether criminal charges should be filed.
The prosecutor has the discretion to determine what crime to charge you with. It could be the one the investigating officer recommended, a more serious offense, or a lesser crime.
In some situations, the prosecutor might decide not to pursue the case because of insufficient evidence, which means you could be arrested but never charged with a crime.
If the prosecutor decides to file charges, they’ll write up a complaint, stating what law or ordinance you are believed to have violated.
What Is an Arrest?
An arrest is when a police officer takes you into custody. This means that your liberties have been restrained, and you are not free to leave. Following an arrest, you will be booked (your information entered into the law enforcement agency’s system) and held in jail until your first court appearance (an arraignment).
Generally, people think that criminal charges and arrests go hand in hand. And in many cases, they do: A person will be arrested, and then the prosecutor will file charges. This method usually happens when police officers make a warrantless arrest, which can be done when the officer has probable cause to believe that an offense occurred or the crime happened in their presence.
Still, an arrest does not always precede a criminal charge. As we will discuss shortly, a few situations exist when the charges come before the arrest.
Issuing a Summons or Citation
You can be criminally charged without being arrested by having a summons issued to you.
A summons is an official document stating that you have been charged with a particular offense and must appear in court on a specific day and time. A court will issue a summons if reasonable grounds exist to believe that you committed a crime. Generally, a summons is issued for lower-level offenses not involving violence.
If you are ordered to court by a summons, you likely have been charged with a crime, but you were not arrested beforehand. However, you will still go through similar processes as someone who was arrested. For instance, you must still be booked before your first court appearance.
A citation is another way to be charged with a crime without being arrested. Think of getting a ticket for certain motor vehicle violations. The officer hands you a slip of paper but doesn’t take you into custody.
A citation works similar to a summons in that it is a notice to appear in court on a certain date. Your signature on the paper is your promise to show up when required.
Citations are generally issued for minor misdemeanors.
Issuing an Arrest Warrant
Law enforcement officials typically request an arrest warrant after completing a pre-file investigation but before taking the suspect into custody. The investigators may hand their findings over to a prosecutor, who decides whether reasonable grounds exist to file charges.
Authorities will then submit to the court a complaint containing the information about the charge or charges against you. If the judge is convinced that there is reason to believe you committed the alleged crime, they will approve the warrant request.
Once an arrest warrant is issued in your name, police officers have the authority to take you into custody. Therefore, your criminal charge happens before an arrest.
Get an Attorney on Your Side
Whatever path your criminal case takes, it’s imperative that you have legal representation early on. At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our Los Angeles defense lawyers are ready to provide the counsel you need at every stage. We can help protect your rights and work toward a favorable outcome on your behalf.
To schedule a consultation, call us at (800) 462-7160 or contact us online today.