April 2013



Question: Is it possible for a private citizen to bring a criminal case against a person or other entity?

Written by , Posted in Statutory Law


Is it possible for a private citizen to bring, charge, and prosecute a criminal case against a person or other entity in any court (federal, county, etc.) without having to go through the law enforcement jurisdiction involved?


This type of action is called “private prosecution.” A private prosecution is a criminal proceeding initiated by an individual or private organization instead of by a public prosecutor who represents the state. Public prosecutors (i.e. district attorneys) today conduct almost all criminal prosecutions. The United States Supreme Court has quashed the right of private prosecution in federal court. Under Leeke v. Timmerman, (1981), 452 U.S. 83, the Court affirms the precedent in Linda R.S. v. Richard D., (1973) 410 U.S. 614, which denies the right of private prosecution, and serves as a bar to criminal prosecution in federal courts by persons not federal government employees. There may be an exception when a federal court appoints a private attorney to prosecute a criminal contempt action if the executive refuses to prosecute. Young v. U.S. ex re. Vuitton et Fils, (1987) 481 U.S. 787.

Regarding state private prosecutions is a different matter. Some states do allow a complainant to either file a request for an order to show cause or to actually prosecute as a private prosecutor. However states usually do not allow private prosecution on cases involving serious crimes or in situations where a public prosecutor has expressly refused to prosecute the defendant. Other states allow the use of private attorneys to assist the state in the prosecution of criminal cases.


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