You would have probably heard the term “indictment” mentioned in your favorite drama series or on the news about an accusation of a grave offense. You know it’s bad news for the defendant, but what does that mean?
An indictment is a formal charge against someone suspected of having committed a serious crime, filed after a grand jury investigation has concluded.
In this article, we will discuss an indictment, how it differs from a criminal complaint filed by a prosecutor, and the difference between being indicted and jail time.
What is an indictment?
An indictment is a formal accusation based on one-hand evidence that a person has committed a serious crime. If enough evidence proves that a person has committed a crime, they can quickly get indicted.
The most crucial thing to know about indictments is that they are not compulsory for every crime, and on the federal level, they are only essential for felonies that will get tried in federal courts.
States are not required to indict every person who has violated the law. Many states, such as Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Texas, have laws that require an indictment to charge someone with a felony.
What’s confusing is that the indictment can come at very different parts of the court process.
Some jurisdictions indict before arresting someone, while others put someone under arrest and then send the case to the indictment. A person will usually know that the police are interested in him because of a crime; usually not something that surprises anyone.
Who decides whether to indict or not?
When suspects get charged with less serious crimes (such as misdemeanors or lower-level felonies), the process typically starts with filing criminal complaints by a prosecutor, often after an arrest and only when there is probable cause to charge. Some courts use preliminary hearings to determine probable cause for more serious criminal charges instead of grand juries, where judges decide whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial.
In contrast, a grand jury indictment is a product of sworn testimony or evidence analyzed by a grand jury of local citizens. The grand jury determines a liable cause for criminal charges, which usually carries more weight than a simple criminal complaint. Grand juries are summoned privately and typically do not possess a judge or defense lawyer.
What is a grand jury?
A grand jury includes 16 to 23 impartial citizens selected to review criminal incidents. Grand juries meet in secrecy to investigate and decide whether formal charges are needed to file against a person. If they believe that criminal prosecution should follow, an indictment is issued.
To file an indictment, prosecutors must convince, Twelve members of the grand jury that formal charges are warranted. During the review, neither the accused nor their lawyers are usually present. The members are not required to examine anything other than what is presented to them by the prosecutor. Instead, members conduct their investigations using their methods without outside interference or judicial oversight.
Grand juries should be viewed entirely separately from any government agency. Defendants can waive their right to a grand jury if the prosecutor offers an attractive plea deal. But this agreement with the prosecution is that it has enough evidence to take the case to trial.
Difference between an indictment and a charge
A charge and an indictment are steps to move a criminal case to trial. The main difference is that grand juries file indictments, and prosecutors file charges.
During a grand jury investigation, the prosecutor must convince the jury members about the crime’s commitment before they can agree that formal charges get filed. Once a person gets charged with a crime, that’s when a public trial can take place.
While an accused person may be present at a grand jury hearing, most take place in a private setting with:
- Associates of the grand jury,
- Any witnesses want to present to the grand jury, and
- Any authorized personnel required for record-keeping and safety.
On the contrary, a person who gets charged must be present in court during the trial, with:
- A defense attorney,
- A jury of peers,
- A stenographer, and
- others necessary to provide a fair trial in most cases.
Commonly speaking, an indictment is also known as a True Bill. It can be considered a formal accusation that undergoes an official investigation before proceeding to charge. An accusation may or may not result in a court charge. On the other hand, a charge means that members of a grand jury have decided to take a formal prosecution.
What are federal indictments?
While most states do not require an indictment before charging a person with a crime, federal crimes can get handled differently.
For federal charges, an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) reviews the merits of the case and interviews federal investigators to determine whether charges should get filed.
When there is a lack of evidence and further investigation cannot help, the AUSA makes an informed decision regarding the reliability of the grand jury. Federal indictments only apply to felony-level offenses, and Federal misdemeanors do not require an indictment before charges can get filed.
How to find out if a person gets indicted
Grand jury proceedings are kept secret from the public, and individual members must not disclose even minimal information to anyone, not on the grand jury. Attorneys, witnesses, and everyone else also get asked to leave the room as jurors act to protect the privacy of the grand jury proceedings.
Proceedings can last from a month to a year and are mostly secret. Generally, only after the indictment gets filed does the accused know that they have been indicted and are facing criminal charges.
The accused usually learns about indictment upon arrest after filing charges and the warrant issuance. Others looking for True bill information can find out by:
- Contact the relevant court office and ask if the True bill gets returned
- Contact the appropriate court office to inquire about future grand jury hearings
- Contact the relevant court office to inquire about upcoming court dates
- Make a written request to get notified of future court dates (only the defendant can do this).
Does being indicted mean guilty?
Whether you are facing an indictment or have already been indicted does not mean you have been found guilty of a crime; an indictment means there is a liable reason to arrest you for a crime.
If you want to know what liable cause means, you have to analyze the evidence criteria. To be condemned with a crime, the state must persuade a jury beyond any doubt that you committed the crime; basically, a greater than 99% probability that you have committed a crime. Probable cause falls under the preponderance of the evidence standard, which is a greater than 50% chance that someone did something.
Probable cause means that based on the available evidence, it is reasonable for you to get charged with a crime, and it’s not a high bar and by no means a dip for conviction.
Does an indictment mean jail time?
No hard and fast rules govern whether someone must remain in jail after being indicted. This decision gets made at the beginning of the court process at the bond hearing.
A bail hearing is a proceeding where the prosecution and defense are present to argue whether someone should be released from custody and for what amount.
Several factors influence a judge’s decision on bail, including the risk to the community on the defendant’s release or whether he is a flight risk (due to having a history of failing to appear for prior hearings). If someone is very dangerous, the court may not free them before trial, and their set up of bond will be at a very high level to make it unusable.
An indictment varies from jail time and contains a notice against a person of a criminal complaint. After the indictment of someone by a grand jury, it returns the charges to the tribunal, and a criminal trial begins. If the suspect (now the defendant) is no longer in custody (in jail), the defendant may be arrested or called to appear in court for a prior hearing.
A grand jury does not prove guilt, and conviction and indictment for a crime differ. However, the indictment suggests that federal prosecutors have strong evidence against you.
Frequently asked questions
Who can get indicted?
With few exceptions, a grand jury can indict anyone. Not all states require people’s indictments to get charged with a crime, and of those who do, the indictments get issued for felonies.
Does being indicted mean jail time?
An indictment does not mean a person will go to jail; it simply means that the prosecution can proceed with criminal charges. At that time, the trial will get scheduled to begin, and the process of hearing the case before a magistrate and jury will begin.
When are grand juries used instead of criminal charges?
Depending on the state, a prosecutor may choose to use a grand jury and indictment process, as opposed to an indictment, when:
. the alleged crime is a serious crime,
. there is a lot of public interest in the case,
. the case seems weak, and the prosecutor wants a chance to “test” it in front of jurors,
. the prosecution concerns the illegal conduct of a public official or
. the witnesses are in state prisons.
What is a criminal charge?
If you are “charged” for a crime, a prosecutor, as opposed to a grand jury, has charged you with a crime and filed a criminal case or formal charge against you.
Can an indictment get dismissed?
An indictment can get dismissed, but it is rare for a prosecutor to do so after a grand jury issues one. Defendants usually still have to appear in court to face criminal charges before the charges get dropped.