Resolving Disputes Through Private Citizen Complaints
Your neighbor regularly rakes his leaves onto your property and refuses to stop. Consequently, you file a private citizen complaint in your town’s municipal court.
A customer buys a shirt and pays with a check but has no money in his checking account. The store owner files a private citizen complaint in the local municipal court, seeking payment from the customer.
In each case, private citizen complaints are filed in municipal courts to resolve disputes. This type of action can be taken by individuals and businesses in matters not involving police or government agencies. You do not have to be a U.S. citizen to file such a complaint.
A practical way to resolve disputes
While it may seem that only governmental officials, like police or code inspectors, are the ones who file complaints, municipal courts also accept and decide complaints filed by private individuals and businesses, particularly when police are not involved. In these matters, the individual or business is the complainant, and the alleged offender is the defendant. While private complaints are few compared to matters filed in municipal courts statewide, they offer a practical way to resolve certain types of disputes.
NJ Supreme Court weighs in
In 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court created a special committee to examine how the rule guiding private citizen complaints was working and whether it should be updated. The committee focused its review on Acceptance of Complaint. “The municipal court administrator or deputy court administrator shall accept for filing every complaint made by any person” (emphasis added). As written, the rule clearly states that anyone, not just a public official acting on official business, can file a municipal court complaint. Underlying this rule is an important public policy: “a policy of full access of the citizenry to the court system as the appropriate mechanism for the resolution of disputes.” Even if this access is occasionally misused, the committee recommended that court rules not be changed to limit access to municipal courts. The committee recognized that open courts give individuals the opportunity to be heard in a public forum.
The New Jersey Supreme Court reviewed the committee’s report and made several administrative determinations. The most important of them are summarized below:
- All private citizen complaints accepted. The Court agreed to continue the policy of municipal courts accepting all private citizen complaints. The municipal court system already has routine processes for filing private citizen complaints. Court staff has informational handouts and forms, and can assist in other languages as needed. A complaint requires a written statement of the facts regarding an offense, signed by the person filing the complaint (complainant). While an optional complaint form is available from the court, complaints can be submitted in person, but not by e-mail.
What municipal court staff cannot do is give complainants legal advice, select the criminal charge or violation to apply, offer legal research, complete the complaint forms, or in any way compromise the neutrality of the court.
- A clearer definition of probable cause. Filing a private citizen complaint merely begins a court process. The fact that a municipal court accepts a complaint for filing does not mean it has made any decision or finding that allegations in the complaint are proven or true. Filing is only a claim of wrongdoing. It does not establish a finding of probable cause—that is, reason to believe that an offense has been committed, that the defendant committed it, and that a summons (compelling someone to come to court) or a complaint-warrant for the arrest of a defendant has been, or should be, issued. Probable cause establishes whether the municipal court complaint will be considered further.
- No limitation on types of complaints. The Court agreed there should not be any limitation on the types of private citizen complaints that municipal courts can accept. No special screening procedures are used to eliminate some types of complaints when they are first filed. But complaints may be dismissed after review by court officials if they do not meet other standards for court consideration, such as being beyond the municipal court’s jurisdiction.
What about complaints against public officials?
While the policy of open access to municipal courts will continue, the New Jersey Supreme Court approved several changes to municipal court rules to ensure greater scrutiny, protection, and control over private citizen complaints involving defendants who are public officials or candidates for public or judicial office.
- Private individuals can make and sign municipal court complaints. But only a “judicial official” (a judge or a municipal court administrator/deputy administrator authorized by the judge) can issue a summons or a complaint-warrant. The judicial official may issue a summons or complaint-warrant only for disorderly or petty disorderly persons offenses, or for nondisorderly persons offenses. A summons or complaint-warrant that charges someone with an indictable offense (a serious criminal charge) can be issued only by a judge.
- Prosecutors must review private complaints against public officials. Prior to the issuance of a summons or complaint-warrant, a county prosecutor must review all private citizen complaints alleging disorderly persons offenses against a political candidate, nominee, or public office holder. The county prosecutor, in turn, can approve the matter (pursue charges), or deny it (not pursue or prosecute the complaint). The county prosecutor can also modify the charges prior to approval. The county prosecutor has 45 days to review such complaints, with a possible 10-day extension for good cause. After review, if the complaint is denied, notice of denial is provided to the complainant and defendant. The county assignment judge is also notified.
- Prosecutors must review private complaints alleging indictable offenses against any person. The county prosecutor reviews such charges under the same guidelines noted above. In this situation, though, when the county prosecutor neither approves nor denies approval within the 45-day period, the matter is deemed “not objecting” and will be considered for judicial review of probable cause. Notice is then provided to the county assignment judge, the party who filed the complaint, and the defendant.
- The New Jersey Supreme Court’s has reaffirmed the municipal court role as an open forum for dispute resolution within its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court’s 2020 procedural revisions will provide important oversight for potentially high-profile complaints, ensuring better control over possible misuse of the municipal court complaint process. All of us can look to municipal courts as one more way to resolve disputes in appropriate cases.
For more information, check the website of the municipal court where you want to file a private complaint
This information last reviewed: Dec 4, 2019