Criminal Indictments: How Are Cases Started?

Disclaimer: This article is not intended as legal advice and does not reflect the opinions of The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp.

Criminal cases are normally initiated and progress in a sequenced and orderly manner and it is important to understand the various steps and documents used in the initiation of a case. All cases are started with a police report after which the police officer contacts a prosecutor who initiates the case. The prosecutor looks at the police report outlining details of the arrest and decides whether the crime is a misdemeanor or felony and which court the case will go to.

One of the most important and official documents that you will be made familiar with early on in the case is the criminal indictment. A criminal indictment is a formal and written document that accuses someone of violating criminal law. However, criminal indictments may not be used in all situations or in all courts. Most of the time, criminal indictments are required in federal courts but sometimes they are not and sometimes they may be needed in state courts as well.

When is an indictment used?

In a federal court, a criminal prosecution is always initiated with a criminal indictment unless the crime the person is being charged for is a petty crime, misdemeanor or criminal contempt. The person may also give up their right to prosecution by indictment in which case as well, there is no criminal indictment.
On the other hand, the Fourteenth Amendment stipulates that state courts don’t really need criminal indictments to initiate criminal prosecutions. Even so, if the case is a felony, the state court may still use criminal indictment.

What is a criminal indictment made up of?

The criminal indictment is a written document that states the crime committed and gives details of the crime including time, date, location and other pertinent details. The accused suspect is also named in this document. If the person being accused has been charged of committing multiple crimes, then the criminal indictment document will include a separate count for each crime. For example, if the accused is being charged of stealing a car and kidnapping someone, they will be indicted on one count of theft and one count of kidnapping.
In any judicial proceeding, the criminal indictment is a sensitive and important document. The criminal indictment is brought about after criminal investigators have had time gathering evidence regarding the crime, locating and interrogating potential suspects and witnesses and conducting other kinds of investigations. This is so that not only the case is made strong but the foundations on which the criminal indictment is prepared are plausible and solid.
Sometimes the prosecutor can request to seal the criminal indictment as well as the grand jury proceedings. This happens in a number of situations including when safety is at stake of the members of the grand jury, witnesses and others presenting evidence or of the community. This can also happen if there is a chance that the suspect being accused may escape and leave the country before the criminal indictment is issued. Once the accused suspect has been apprehended and successfully brought to court, the seal on the indictment is lifted. If the accused suspect cannot be gotten hold of, the criminal indictment remains sealed until the day the accused can be apprehended and brought to court.

Role played by grand juries

What is also important to understand about a criminal indictment is that irrespective of which court it is presented in, it is always handed down by a grand jury. The jury is made up of a panel of citizens who are called upon by the government to listen to the evidence collected so far in order to decide whether or not formal charges in the form of the indictment should be filed against the accused.
Grand juries at the federal level are made up of 23 people who serve for 18 months while state grand juries are smaller (15 people) that serve anywhere between 6 to 18 months. During grand jury proceedings, members of the jury can directly ask questions from the witnesses presented. Another major difference in grand jury proceedings from that of a trial is that the defense attorney is not present during grand jury proceedings. While the accused normally does not testify before the grand jury, he or she may request to do so.
After attending the grand jury proceedings, if the majority of the grand jury (12 members in the federal court) believe that the evidence presented is sufficient to establish probable cause that the crime was committed by the accused, then they will return a ‘true bill’. Otherwise, the grand jury may vote to return a ‘no bill’ which means that they don’t believe the evidence is sufficient to think that the accused committed the crime. In the former case, the criminal indictment has formally been issued and the accused has been indicted of the crime.

Trial proceedings

In case the accused suspect is already in custody, then the prosecutor can proceed to initiate the trial. If the accused has not been arrested, a warrant will be issued for their arrest. In any case, if you find yourself trapped in the middle of an indictment process, it is advisable to hire a defense attorney as soon as possible. It is advised to hire someone with several years of experience in criminal defense who is ready to jump in to prepare your defense case on a timely basis.
Jonathan R. Sills, Professional Criminal Defense Lawyer in Connecticut. He has a statewide practice representing clients in criminal and DUI matters.