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A formal criminal charge against a person alleged to have committed an offense punishable by law, which is presented before a court or a magistrate having jurisdiction to inquire into the alleged crime.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution provides in part that a person accused of a crime has the right "to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation." Thus in any federal criminal prosecution, the statute setting forth the crime in the accusation must define the offense in sufficiently clear terms so that an average person will be informed of the acts that come within its scope. The charge must also inform the accused in clear and unambiguous language of the offense with which he or she is being charged under the statute. An accused has the same rights when charged with violating state criminal law because the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies the guarantees of the Sixth Amendment to the states. The paper in which the accusation is set forth—such as an indictment, information, or a complaint—is called an accusatory instrument.

Most state constitutions contain language similar to that in the Sixth Amendment. In many state rules of Criminal Procedure, the accusatory instrument serves to protect the state constitutional rights of the accused. In Louisiana, for example, the purpose of a bill of information is to inform a defendant of the nature and cause of the accusation against him or her as required by the Louisiana State Constitution (State v. Stevenson, 2003 WL 183998 [La. App. 2003]).

In order to quash a bill of information or other accusatory instrument, the accused must present direct evidence not established by the record, showing the bill was insufficient. The accused generally has the burden of proof to demonstrate that the accusatory instrument was insufficient. The RULES OF EVIDENCE in a particular jurisdiction apply to the evidentiary determination of the sufficiency of the accusatory instrument.

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