HomeJuvenile Justice
in New Jersey
The Complaint
Points of Contrast and Comparison with Adult Criminal Justice
Custody and Juvenile Statements
Motion Practice
Delinquency Hearings
Post-Disposition; Expungement; and Appeals

“The purpose of the complaint is to communicate”

State in the Interest of A.R.,
57 N.J. 71, 73 (1970)

The Complaint

Juvenile delinquency cases in New Jersey proceed by way of complaint, a document that lists the charge or charges against the juvenile, as well as other basic information, and that places the State of New Jersey into an adversarial posture against a juvenile. See N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-30; R. 5:20-1(a). Each charge must be supported by probable cause, meaning “a well-grounded suspicion or belief that the juvenile committed the alleged crime.” In re State ex rel. A.D., 212 N.J. 200, 205-06 (2012). Probable cause “is not a high bar,” D.C. v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 586 (2018), and it is possible for a juvenile to be properly charged in a complaint even if the State cannot prove its charge beyond a reasonable doubt, and even if the juvenile is ultimately found to be innocent.

Even immature behaviors that do not hurt anyone, like “hanging out” in a parking lot, see State v. Olivero, 221 N.J. 632, 643 (2015), or “shooting a paintball gun at an unoccupied automobile,” see In the Interest of G.C.,179 N.J. 475, 477 (2004), may result in a juvenile delinquency complaint: The statutory definition of “delinquency” is expansive, including all acts that “if committed by an adult would constitute” crimes, disorderly or petty disorderly person offenses, or violations of “any other penal statute, ordinance or regulation.” N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-23. (That said, there are significant exceptions to this definition, including motor vehicle offenses, listed in the same statute.)

“Complaints in juvenile matters are frequently prepared by persons who are not members of the bar,” such as police officers, and often are not “artistically phrased;” but a juvenile’s attorney may make “a demand for specifics” if the complaint does not contain sufficient information to permit a defense against the charges. State in the Interest of A.R., 57 N.J. 71, 73 (1970).

If the State files a complaint against a juvenile, it may also seek an arrest warrant from a judge “if the nature of the case requires the immediate custody of the juvenile,” R. 5:20-3; if a judge issues an arrest warrant, a “critical stage” has been reached in the proceeding against the juvenile, and he or she then has a right to legal counsel. State ex rel. P.M.P., 200 N.J. 166, 178 (2009). The right to legal counsel “means that juveniles cannot be asked to waive the right [to remain silent or the right to legal counsel] at that stage without an attorney present.” State in the Interest of N.H., 226 N.J. 242, 253 (2016); N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-39. (Further information about being arrested—for juveniles, it is called being “taken into custody” for their protection—and about the right to remain silent is presented on the Custody and Juvenile Statements tab.)

Not all complaints will result in an arrest warrant, but the issuance of a summons instead, which requires the juvenile and his or her parent or guardian to report for court proceedings without an arrest. See R. 5:20-2. The Attorney General of New Jersey has recommended that a summons, instead of an arrest warrant, be a “default” in most juvenile cases—with arrest warrants “reserved only for the most serious charges or to protect the public.” Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2020-12 (Dec. 3, 2020) at 2,

As noted above, not all legal offenses committed by juveniles are subject to the process governing juvenile delinquency: N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-23 lists offenses, such as motor vehicle offenses, that are not. Even among the offenses that are subject to the process governing juvenile delinquency, not all will result in the filing of a complaint: Curbside warnings, stationhouse adjustments, and other similar alternatives to proceeding with a formal case against a juvenile for delinquency are defined, and treated preferentially, in Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2020-12, linked above. Finally, among those offenses that are subject to the juvenile justice process and do make it into a complaint, some will be “diverted.” See N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-73; R. 5:20-1(c). Diversion is directed toward resolution of the complaint in a process oriented more toward social services than criminal procedure. An example of diversion would be to the Juvenile Conference Committee or Intake Services Conference, which are described in more detail on the following tab.

Notably, adult defendants are constitutionally entitled to indictment by a grand jury consisting of multiple people who determine whether there is probable cause to support the State’s charges. In contrast, juveniles are entitled only to a complaint as described above, which is often generated by a single law enforcement official. See N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-30; R. 5:20-1(a). That said, juveniles and their legal counsel are permitted at multiple stages to contest the probable cause allegedly supporting any charge. It is possible to end a juvenile delinquency case at its earliest stages by showing that there is not probable cause to support the State’s charge(s) or that the charge(s) is based on constitutional violation(s). Along those lines, motions to dismiss are noted below on the Motion Practice tab.

Note: The information on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all content is for general informational purposes only. Information on this website may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information. This website contains links to other websites, which are simply for the convenience of the reader.

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