Friday Q&A: Why Can I Pay a Fine on One Charge but Must Appear for the Other?

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Welcome to our weekly series, Friday Q&A. Each week our attorneys will respond to a question selected from the many received by direct and online submission. Have a question you want answered or topic you want to hear more about? Submit your suggestions to us by tweeting@TLOBJ or sending a message to our Facebook Page.

Question: What’s the difference between a complaint and a summons? Is it something to do with why was I able to pay a speeding ticket online, but then I had to come to court for a second charge on the same ticket?

Answer: In Ohio, a criminal complaint is the start of a criminal case. An alleged crime occurred and was seen by, or was reported to, a police officer who wrote up a statement alleging the violation of law. The written accusation is called a criminal complaint. A complaint outlines the section of law alleged to have been violated (the Code Section), the person who committed the violation (the Accused or the Defendant), the location the violation occurred, and any special circumstances, like the use of a weapon or the identity of an alleged victim.

A complaint on a minor misdemeanor – like speeding or disorderly conduct – will include a summons to appear at the local municipal court, typically printed on the face of the complaint. The ticket the officer hands you after a speeding stop is your complaint and summons, because it lists what you are accused of doing, where and when you allegedly did it and when and where you need to appear to answer the charges. Plainly speaking, a summons is a court-order to appear at a particular location on a particular date and time to answer to the charges alleged in the complaint.

In many cases, minor misdemeanor charges can be quickly resolved by paying a fine, often without the need to appear if you pay all fines prior to the court date. However, depending on your individual situation – pending college applications, CDL holder, professional license holder (nursing, law, pharmacy, etc.), clergy member, or delivery driver – it is worth consulting with a criminal defense lawyer in Delaware to see if a diversion program or other resolution is available to you. While minor misdemeanor charges carry NO possibility of jail time, you may suffer collateral consequences as a result of a misdemeanor conviction such as suspension of your driver’s license, suspension or termination of your professional license or loss of federal financial aid– that’s why we always recommend consulting with a criminal defense attorney before admitting any charge.

A complaint on a misdemeanor of the First, Second, Third, or Fourth Degree, or a complaint alleging any felony crime, will feature the same information: a description of the alleged crime, a reference to the code section allegedly violated, the identity of the alleged defendant, the location the alleged crime occurred, the identity of any purported victim, a description of any alleged injury or property damage, and any alleged special circumstances, like the age of the victim, or the use of a weapon. We will further explore the different penalties associated with First, Second, Third, and Fourth degree misdemeanors and all felony charges in a future post. What all tiered charges have in common is the possibility of jail time – or the loss of your liberty. Because of that, you will not be able to simply pay a fine and be done with the charge – whether you are facing 30 days in jail or 30 months in prison, you have the right to legal counsel and due process in answering those charges.

A criminal complaint for a tiered misdemeanor offense may be issued by summons, or may issue by warrant. A criminal complaint for any felony offense may be issued by summons, warrant, or by direct indictment. More on the difference between misdemeanors and felonies next week!

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