Hello and welcome back to the DuBois blog! Here on the blog, we like to break down legal news, give our thoughts on laws, and distribute available information to the good people of WNY. You have almost definitely heard of the word indictment but may be fuzzy on what it actually means and what's involved. We're sure you know it's nothing good, but maybe not exactly what it entails. Today, we'll break down the definition and what you need to know about this step in the legal process.
The Fifth Amendment's Relation with Grand Juries and Indictments
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution is something we've covered before, but it's worth mentioning again. Let's quote the Bill of Rights as a refresher, focusing mostly on how the amendment relates to our topic at hand today.
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger...”
Basically, this means for any felony or “otherwise infamous” crime, that an indictment must be made by a grand jury in order to bring a felony charge. Indictments typically come before an arrest is made, so it may be “sealed”, to prevent the defendant or other suspects from fleeing, destroying evidence, or otherwise evasive maneuvers to avoid prosecution.
It's worth noting that here in New York, we also have a grand jury system for serious crimes, but this varies state by state. If you're not in NY and reading this, consult with a local attorney who can advise you on the specific laws surrounding your state. We'll go further into NY grand juries in a moment.
Grand Juries: The Basics
When someone is charged with a lesser crime, the process will typically begin with an arrest, probable cause for a crime has been determined, and a criminal complaint has been filed.
A grand jury indictment, then, is the result of sworn witness testimony and/or physical evidence, assessed and analyzed by a grand jury of people local to the area. Their role is to make a judgment on the presented evidence to determine whether there is probable cause that a crime was committed. Grand juries are conducted in secret, usually without judges and/or defense lawyers. However, just because a grand jury has determined there's probable cause, it does not make the accused automatically guilty. They still need to go through the legal process from there, being found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in court.
The grand jury system serves as a check on prosecutorial power. Prosecutors need to present the case and prove its validity before moving forward - this ensures that they can't just unilaterally decide to pursue a case without evaluation. Grand juries are supposed to be impartial and made up of a wide array of people to represent the area's population. Their impartiality is critical in maintaining public trust in the system and ensuring the cases with the most punishment have some objective oversight.
State-Level vs Federal-Level Indictment
Both state and federal indictments involve grand juries, but there are key differences. Those are usually jurisdiction, types of cases, and procedures. Let's briefly run through the differences.
Here in NY, we also use grand juries in a similar fashion as the federal system. State-level courts have general jurisdiction and handle most of the court cases in the United States. The violations covered are typically broad in focus, such as property damage, drug offenses, and violent crimes.
Federal-level indictments involve violations of federal law. These would typically include cases that cross state lines, like drug trafficking, organized crime, or financial crimes. Federal courts' jurisdiction is more limited, only handling cases that fall under federal law or the Constitution. Remember though, an indictment is not a guilty verdict. It is worth noting that one of the reasons that you see so many indictments brought before a grand jury go through is that prosecutors don't like to bring their material until they're very confident in their case.
Indictment Specifically in NY
Here in NY, the grand jury system plays a critical role in the criminal justice process, with grand juries ranging in size from 16 to 23 members who are tasked with determining whether or not to issue an indictment for felony cases. Our grand juries operate under NY's specific laws and provisions, which can differ from federal grand jury proceedings. Something unique of note, defendants have the right to testify before the grand jury, should they make that decision (NY Crim. Proc. Law § 190.50), which is absent in federal proceedings.
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