What is an Indictment?
If you’ve watched or read the news lately you may have noticed that one term has been popping up quite frequently: indictment. Rappers have been indicted for domestic violence. Mothers have been indicted for opioid-related drug crimes. Dozens of President’s associates have been indicted for a slew of crimes, ranging from financial crimes to lying to the FBI. So, what exactly is an indictment?
Indictments: Formal Accusation of a Crime
An indictment is a formal accusation by a Grand Jury that you’ve committed a serious crime. Under the Fifth Amendment, an indictment is required if the government believes that you have committed a felony federal offense. So, rather than simply charging you with a federal felony, the government has to present information and evidence to a Grand Jury. The Grand Jury members will consider the evidence and determine whether there is probable cause to believe you’ve committed the felony offense. If the Grand Jury believes probable cause exists they’ll issue an indictment. Once an indictment is issued, the federal government can formally pursue felony criminal charges and penalties.
Indictments Not Required at the State Level
The Fifth Amendment only requires indictments when individuals are accused of a committing a serious federal offense. The requirement is not automatically extended to the state. However, many states, including California, have embraced the indictment process.
In California, there are two ways you can be formally charged with a felony.
The first is when the prosecutor presents evidence at a preliminary hearing, for which the defendant is present. A judge considers the evidence and determines whether or not there is enough to warrant felony criminal charges. If there’s enough evidence, the defendant will be charged.
The second is by having a Grand Jury consider evidence and determine if there is probable cause to support felony criminal charges. In Los Angeles, a Grand Jury is comprised of 23 different jurors. Jurors serve for 30 calendar days and consider any cases that come before them. Grand jury proceedings tend to be private and may even be conducted without the defendant’s knowledge. The Grand Jury’s job is to determine “if there is a strong suspicion the individual committed the crime alleged.” If the Grand Jury believes there is probable cause, the defendant will be charged with the crime through an indictment.
Why Would State Prosecutors Use a Grand Jury to Indict a Suspect?
It’s important to understand that the indictment process can only be used when a person is accused of committing a felony offense. Misdemeanor charges will be filed by the state during a preliminary hearing. Grand Jury proceedings are reserved for cases that involve serious crimes.
The state may decide to pursue an indictment for a few different reasons.
First, an indictment helps to support criminal charges that are ultimately filed. A case is less likely to be dismissed for a lack of probable cause or evidence if it was supported by a Grand Jury investigation.
Second, an indictment can be conducted quietly. Defendants typically aren’t present and many don’t even know that a Grand Jury has been convened to consider criminal charges. This can buy the state time as they continue to investigate a crime. It can also prevent a defendant from destroying evidence or trying to leave town before an arrest. It basically offers the state the element of surprise.
Third, witnesses may not want to come forward in a public preliminary hearing. Using the secrecy of a Grand Jury proceeding can help to protect witnesses and victims in the early stages of serious or high-profile cases.
Finally, Grand Juries are notoriously friendly to prosecutors. The state is able to present evidence of a crime without any contesting arguments from the defense. The Grand Jury makes its decision based only on the information provided by the state. This increases the likelihood of a decision that favors the state.
Always Seek Legal Help If You Are Facing Criminal Charges
Indictments are reserved for the most serious criminal offenses. An indictment doesn’t mean that you’re guilty, but it does mean that you will face criminal charges for a felony. If you’re facing an indictment it’s important to get the help of an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorney as soon as you can.