Private criminal complaints bypass police as cases head to court
In August 2018, a woman directly asked prosecutors to charge her ex-boyfriend, a resident of McKeesport, with witness intimidation.
She accused the man of threatening to come to her apartment, kick in the door and kill her or throw bricks through her windows. She said he wanted her to drop assault charges filed against him from a prior domestic incident in which he physically assaulted her.
In July 2017, a Clairton woman was accused of stealing furniture worth over $3,000 from a Value City Furniture store in West Mifflin after she allegedly stopped paying for it.
About five years ago, a McKeesport woman was charged with fraudulently obtaining government assistance after she was accused of not reporting her employment status to the Allegheny County Assistance Office. She was accused by the state Office of the Inspector General of unlawfully obtaining $8,700 in Cash Assistance and nearly $3,500 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
In all three cases, the charges were brought with a tool that gets little public attention but is a common part of the legal system: the private criminal complaint. They bypassed police officers and brought their cases directly to prosecutors.
The witness intimidation charge was eventually withdrawn. The woman charged in the furniture theft pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. The woman accused of fraudulently obtaining government assistance was sentenced to community service through the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Probation Program.
Law experts say there is a place for such private complaints alongside police officers who routinely investigate criminal matters and file criminal complaints every day. There are several reasons that people may decide to pursue a private criminal complaint as opposed to going to the police.
In some cases, it can be logistical. Some police departments may not have enough officers to immediately investigate every inquiry that comes in.
In others, it can be preference. Someone might not feel comfortable going to the police.
“Most people might call the police, but I can see where some people wouldn’t think to call the police,” said John Rago, an associate professor of law at Duquesne University. “I think they’re looking for speed, to get it done. Another thing is people may have a level of embarrassment. They may be afraid of the police. Every individual it could be a different answer.”
Private criminal complaints also give people the ability to seek further input on a matter they believe could be criminal if the police decide not to pursue charges.
“It gives the citizen who thinks that the police are wrong about the evaluation of a case the opportunity to have the district attorney’s office look at it in a more formal way,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and chair of the criminology department at Saint Vincent College. “The citizen can always directly call the district attorney’s office and ask them about a matter, but by filing a criminal complaint or a private complaint they’re really looking for a more formal assessment about whether there’s a crime and if it’s worth being pursued.”
According to an examination of private criminal complaints by the Tribune-Review, from Jan. 1, 2014 through March 31, 2019, close to 4,700 such complaints were publicly filed in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. Roughly 34% resulted in a conviction; 22% were withdrawn; 20% were dismissed; 0.4% were found not guilty and 0.2% pleaded no contest.
The majority of the complaints filed were for retail thefts, 48%, and bad checks, 18%. Others were theft of leased property at 11%; fraudulently obtaining government assistance at 7%; and theft by deception at about 6%.
Rago said private criminal complaint cases are common, and are typically brought by individuals for less serious crimes involving people who know each other such as neighbors or family members.
“Some commonly found complaints involve simple assault, terrorist threats, and harassment by communications. You may also see a variety of landlord tenant issues,” he said.
Violent and more serious crimes, such as burglaries and robberies, aren’t normally pursued as private criminal complaints. They are usually handled by the police.
“Public safety is the first obligation of government, and these kinds of crimes go to the very core of this obligation,” Rago said.
Private criminal complaints must be approved by an assistant district attorney in order to proceed. If approved, they proceed in the same fashion as if they were filed by a police officer.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said after a private criminal complaint request is submitted to his office, an assistant district attorney will interview the person who requested it to check the facts of the case and that person’s credibility.
“They have to describe what the crime is and that description has to contain all the elements that are necessary to prove a crime,” Peck said.
There is an assistant district attorney at each Magisterial District Court in Allegheny County. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said having an assistant district attorney at each location ensures private criminal complaints are heard in a timely fashion. It also gives residents confidence their complaint will be treated with respect and consideration.
“Ultimately, the decision to approve a private complaint for prosecution depends upon the evidence supporting the allegation, which is the same process that my office uses when approving complaints filed by the various police departments throughout the county,” he said.
People charged by a private criminal complaint will likely be contacted either by subpoena or by the district attorney’s office investigating the incident. Law experts advise anyone charged by such a complaint to seek counsel.
“Get a lawyer. Your liberty is (potentially) at risk,” Rago said.