by Ann L. Carrott
Seventh District Judge
It used to be when a prosecutor charged someone with committing a crime, the prosecutor prepared a paper document called a criminal complaint, a permanent, public document that explains why a prosecutor thinks he or she has a basis to charge an individual or a corporation with a crime.
In this age of cellphones, tablets and 3D printing, judges do not sign criminal complaints anymore using an ink pen. We do it electronically.
When I started practicing as an attorney in 1980, I would dictate a complaint and a secretary would type it. After I signed it, the law-enforcement officer whose case it was came to my office and picked up the complaint and then went to the courthouse to see a judge. The judge would require the officer to raise his or her right hand and swear to the judge the facts in the complaint were true, and then the officer would sign his or her name with the judge watching.
The judge then reviewed the complaint and signed it if he or she found there was probable cause to believe a crime had been committed and that the named defendant had committed the crime. If the judge decided there was not probable cause, he or she handed the complaint back to the law-enforcement officer unsigned. If the judge signed the complaint, the law enforcement officer walked the complaint to the court administrator’s office and filed it. The defendant was then notified of a court date or arrested if the judge authorized an arrest warrant.
Now the complaint is not walked around from the attorney to the law-enforcement officer to the judge and to court administration. It follows that same path but not in paper form. As a judge, I never place the law-enforcement officer under oath or watch him or her sign the complaint. The law-enforcement officer is sworn in by a notary public. Just as before, I still review the complaint for probable cause, but no person stands in front of me and raises his or her right hand to be placed under oath. All the legal requirements are met through the electronic process. It’s more efficient, especially eliminating the need for people to go from place to place in the winter weather.
But I miss the old process of having the officer sworn in and watching him or her sign the complaint with a pen. It was a face-to-face interaction that emphasized the importance of what was being done. It made it “real.“
Don’t get me wrong; I embrace technology. I do not want to return to Smith Corona typewriters with correction tape. (For those of you who are too young to remember what these are, ask your grandparents.) Communication through technology is how our society functions now, and the Minnesota court system is quickly converting to a paperless system. Although challenging, it’s also quite exciting. I guess I don’t miss the process. I miss talking with the people involved and the significance of signing with a pen. We do save money on pens.
The Hon. Ann L. Carrott is a Seventh District Court Judge chambered in Douglas County since 2007.