In Texas, the formal court process begins when charges are filed, usually based on the complaint of a law enforcement officer after conducting their investigation. A “complaint” is a sworn statement alleging that probable cause exists to believe that a person committed a crime. In felony cases only, a prosecutor may obtain an indictment directly from a grand jury without a complaint being formerly filed, but this is uncommon.
In Harris County, the process typically starts with police suspecting that a crime has occurred. Police either witness the alleged offense or receive information about it. Police then call the “intake division” of the Harris County District Attorney’s office to see if the prosecutor will accept the charges. The intake division is open every day, all day, all year.
Say, for example, police stop a suspect for DWI. He fails field sobriety tests. Police call the “intake division” and speak to a prosecutor: “I just stopped Danny Defendant in traffic for swerving. I approached him and he smelled like alcohol. I did field sobriety tests and he failed all of them. He refuses to take a breath or blood test. Will you take charges for DWI?”
If the DA’s office “accepts” the charges, then the defendant is arrested and charges are filed. If the charges are “declined”, then the defendant is released.
In other Texas counties, such as Galveston County, the defendant is arrested and charged, and the prosecutor reviews the file later to determine if they will proceed with charges.
Many people think that a complainant’s word alone is not enough for charges to be filed. However, most cases rest on just the complainant’s word. For example, if someone calls the police and says that her boyfriend assaulted her, her word is sufficient for police to file charges, for the case to go to trial, and for the defendant to be convicted if the complainant is considered believable. In fact, if you think about it, most cases are based just on the complainant’s word. If you’ve been robbed in a parking lot and you’re the only witness, then that robbery case is based on your word alone.