Understanding Criminal Indictment

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 What Is a Criminal Indictment?

A criminal indictment is a pre-trial process that occurs prior to the criminal trial phase of prosecuting a crime. Criminal procedure refers to the overall legal process of adjudicating claims for a person who is accused of violating criminal laws. The overall idea behind every state’s criminal procedure laws is based on the “presumption of innocence.” This means that a suspect is considered to be innocent until they are proven guilty.

Because a defendant has a right to a presumption of innocence, the burden of proof is on the state prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant actually committed the crime they are being accused of committing. Criminal defendants that have been accused of a crime also have certain constitutional rights and protections, including but not limited to:

  • Fourth Amendment Rights: Fourth Amendment rights encompass the right for individuals to be free from illegal search and seizure and also include provisions involving the execution of search warrants;
  • Fifth Amendment Rights: Fifth Amendment rights include an individual’s due process rights, the right to remain silent, Miranda rights, and the right against double jeopardy;
  • Sixth Amendment Rights: Sixth Amendment rights include an individual’s right to a speedy trial, the right to an impartial jury, the right to assistance of counsel, the right to confront witnesses, the right to be informed of the charges being brought against them, including the possible criminal punishments, and the right to compel witnesses to appear in criminal court;
  • Eighth Amendment Rights: Eighth Amendment rights include an individual’s rights involving setting bail and limitations on sentencing, especially prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishments;
  • Fourteenth Amendment Rights: Fourteenth Amendment rights include several additional rights for an individual concerning due process rights.

The criminal procedure may be better understood as a timeline that begins with the apprehension of a person suspected of a crime and ends with the final verdict and/or appeal. Additionally, criminal procedural guidelines govern other after-measures, such as probation or parole. A criminal indictment is one such phase of criminal procedure that is utilized to process criminal cases.

A criminal indictment is one of the initial phases of a criminal felony case, which requires a grand jury. The indictment process begins when an individual is arrested or charged under suspicion of committing a criminal act. As far as the exact length of time for the indictment process to conclude, the process can take up to two years for a felony charge.

During the criminal indictment process, a grand jury will determine whether or not there is enough evidence against a defendant to proceed with the criminal trial phase. Examples of what a grand jury will consider when determining whether to proceed to a criminal trial include:

  • The proposed charge;
  • Physical evidence that tends to prove or disprove the crime the individual is being accused of;
  • Witness testimony that is presented by the prosecutor.
  • It is important to note that all capital crimes and death penalty cases must be brought by indictment.

The intention of a criminal indictment is not to determine whether or not a defendant is guilty, as this determination is reserved for the actual criminal trial. Instead, during a criminal indictment, the jury must determine the probability that a crime was committed and whether or not the defendant should be tried for that crime. If the jury concludes that there is a high likelihood that the defendant might be guilty, then the trial phase will be commenced by indictment.

What Is the Difference Between an Indictment and Preliminary Hearing?

Once again, an indictment occurs during the pre-trial phase of a criminal trial. The prosecutor may file a felony complaint against the defendant rather than presenting the case to a grand jury. In that case, the defendant has the right to a preliminary hearing in order to hear all of the evidence against them.

During a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor must prove that the state has enough evidence against the defendant to proceed with the criminal trial phase of the case. If the case goes to a grand jury indictment instead, then no preliminary hearing is needed.

Additionally, a criminal indictment requires that the prosecutor bring the case before a grand jury and present evidence of the crime that the defendant allegedly committed. This also includes asking the grand jurors to formally bring criminal charges against the defendant.

What Happens During a Grand Jury Hearing?

Once again, grand jury trials are not necessary in all criminal cases and are generally reserved for especially serious federal crimes involving felony charges. To reiterate, the 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that all charges involving capital punishment and “infamous crimes” are to be filed through a grand jury indictment.

A grand jury consists of 12 to 23 people whom the judge selects. Grand juries become necessary when evidence needs to be reviewed in order to begin the criminal trial phase and may need to sit for several months to one year.

The prosecutor will be responsible for presenting evidence and witnesses to the Grand Jury in an attempt to establish that there is probable cause that the accused committed the crime. The grand jury may then:

  • Request further evidence or witnesses from the prosecuting attorney;
  • Subpoena evidence or witnesses;
  • Question each witness who testifies.

It is important to note that the person being accused of a crime has no right to be present or testify to the grand jury, and there is no requirement for cross-examination. If the Grand Jury finds that probable cause exists, they will issue an indictment, and the case will then proceed toward the criminal trial phase. On the other hand, if the grand jury does not find probable cause, no indictment will be issued, and the charges against the accused will be dismissed.

In most jurisdictions, a preliminary hearing will be held instead of a grand jury hearing in order to determine whether or not probable cause exists. This also determines whether the accused person should stand trial. This makes the grand jury’s role in criminal cases relatively minor.

Once again, the judge, defendant, and criminal defense lawyer are not generally present during state or federal grand jury hearings, which includes the indictment process. Instead, the prosecutor will present the evidence to the grand jury during the indictment. Then, after deliberating, a majority vote by the grand jury is all that is required to send the case to trial. However, a defendant may still choose to work with a criminal defense lawyer in order to assist them with other issues associated with the trial.

What Is a Direct Indictment?

The legal term “direct Indictment” refers to when a felony case goes straight to trial, often before a criminal complaint is filed against the defendant. No inquiry is completed, and the preliminary hearings are bypassed. Dismissed direct indictments occur when a case is dismissed at a municipal level and proceeds directly to a grand jury.

Direct indictments are considered to be legal because there is no legal requirement that a criminal trial must begin by filing a complaint. The method of direct indictment is a considerably powerful legal mechanism that is reserved for special cases.

What Is a Sealed Indictment?

The legal term “sealed Indictment” means that the indictment is not made public and is kept secret. The documentation resulting from the indictment may generally be kept “under seal.” This means that the public cannot access the records from the indictment.

An indictment may be sealed for several reasons, such as to protect the identity of a victim or to protect the identity of key witnesses. However, a sealed indictment may become public later on after trial, when the seal has been “lifted.”

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Criminal Indictment Issues?

If you have any issues involving a criminal indictment, it is in your best interests to consult an experienced criminal lawyer. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help defend your case. Additionally, a defense lawyer will ensure that your criminal rights are protected and will also be able to represent you at any in-person criminal proceeding.


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