Criminal cases are pursued by the district attorney's office on behalf of the citizens of the Commonwealth. They are violations of the law that carry criminal penalties.11
Any person can file a criminal complaint with the court, or ask the police or health department to file a complaint on their behalf.
If the state Sanitary Code has been violated, the Board of Health can also file a criminal complaint. For more about criminal complaints and Sanitary Code violations, see Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made. For a list of criminal laws most frequently violated by landlords, see Chapter 13: When to Take Your Landlord to Court.
Before you file a criminal complaint, ask yourself what outcome you want. In many cases, a criminal complaint may take much longer time to get results. For example, although you can file a criminal complaint if your landlord won’t make Sanitary Code repairs, a civil complaint will move through the system much faster, allowing a civil judge to issue repair orders in just a few weeks. In comparison, a criminal complaint could take several months to get a similar result.
1. Filing a Criminal Complaint
To file a criminal complaint, go to a housing or district court and ask the court staff for a criminal complaint.12 Fill it out and return it to the clerk. There is no charge to file a criminal complaint. You can also ask a Board of Health or police to file a criminal complaint on your behalf.
If you are in an area with a housing court, the housing court has criminal complaints online. Go to:
The clerk will then schedule a hearing called a show-cause hearing to determine whether your complaint should be issued by the court. The clerk will schedule a show-cause hearing for the next available court date.
If it is an emergency and your physical safety is in immediate danger, ask the clerk to schedule a show-cause hearing that day. You can also call the police and ask that a criminal complaint be filed against your landlord.
2. The Show-Cause Hearing
A show-cause hearing is used by a clerk or magistrate to determine whether your complaint should be officially issued by the court. It is less formal than a court hearing.
At a show-cause hearing, the clerk will ask you to state the facts in your complaint. A landlord may not have to be present at the show-cause hearing. If the landlord is present, the clerk will then ask the landlord for her version of events. The clerk must then decide whether the facts taken at face value match what are known as the "legal elements" of a crime. The clerk does not decide who is telling the truth or the guilt or innocence of your landlord. If the clerk finds that the law may have been violated, she should issue a criminal complaint.
In the district court, and in housing cases in particular, some clerks will not issue a criminal complaint immediately. Instead, the show-cause hearing will be postponed, for example, to give the landlord time to make the repairs and avoid criminal liability. Sometimes clerks will repeatedly delay issuing a criminal complaint. If this occurs, complain to the presiding judge of the court.
If the clerk issues a criminal complaint, a court date will be set to arraign the landlord. At an arraignment, the person charged with a crime appears before a judge and enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (which means the charges are not contested). A district attorney will be assigned to prosecute the case. The case will be called Commonwealth v. The Name of Your Landlord.
After the arraignment, a pre-trial conference date is set. The judge may allow the landlord time to correct the violation and remove the grounds for the complaint.
At the pre-trial conference, the case might be settled ("plea bargained"), postponed for another pre-trial conference, or a trial date will be set. Again, this date may be postponed several times as the judge gives the landlord time to remove the underlying grounds for the complaint. If the landlord does resolve the issue in the complaint, the district attorney may dismiss or settle the case. If not, a trial will be held and the landlord may be fined or even face jail under some statutes. See Chapter 13: When to Take Your Landlord to Court for landlord-tenant statutes with criminal consequences.