Indictments Explained

You’ve probably heard the word “indictment” mentioned on your favorite TV crime drama or the nightly news, typically in the context of someone being charged with a serious crime. You know it’s not a good thing for the person being indicted, but what exactly does it mean? Simply stated, an indictment is a formal accusation against someone who is suspected of committing a serious crime, filed after the conclusion of a grand jury investigation.

So how does an indictment differ from a criminal complaint filed by a prosecutor? What is the burden of proof for obtaining an indictment? And do federal indictments differ from those in state courts?

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to seek an indictment from a grand jury in order to prosecute someone for a felony or “otherwise infamous” crime. Since an indictment comes after a grand jury but typically before an arrest, it may be “sealed” for however much time is needed to prevent the defendant or other suspects from fleeing, destroying evidence, or otherwise evading justice.

The grand jury requirement is not extended to the states, but many states follow a similar procedure for the prosecution of serious felonies (and some misdemeanors).

When suspects are charged with lesser crimes (such as misdemeanors or lower-level felonies), the process generally begins with the prosecutor filing a criminal complaint, often following an arrest and only when there is probable cause for the charges. Some courts use preliminary hearings instead of grand juries to determine probable cause for more serious criminal charges, where judges decide whether there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial.

In contrast, a grand jury indictment is the product of sworn witness testimony and/or physical evidence, analyzed by a grand jury made up of local citizens. The grand jury’s role is to determine whether there is in fact probable cause (not guilt) for criminal charges, which generally carries much more weight than a simple criminal complaint. Grand juries are convened in secrecy and usually don’t involve judges or defense lawyers.

Defendants may choose to waive their right to a grand jury if the prosecutor is offering an attractive plea bargain, but doing so amounts to an agreement with the prosecution that it has enough evidence to take the case to trial.

If you or a loved one is in a bind as a result of a criminal charge, immediately contact a Seattle Criminal Attorney. A Criminal lawyer is not going to judge you, and understands that everyone makes mistakes. Hiring a Seattle Criminal Lawyer to help can – at a minimum – reduce penalties, and can help direct people on how to best deal with their criminal charge, and many times even get them dismissed. So it should go without saying that someone cited for a misdemeanor or felony should hire a qualified Seattle Criminal Lawyer as soon as possible. Criminal charges can cause havoc on a person’s personal and professional life. Anyone charged with a crime in Washington State should immediately seek the assistance of a seasoned Seattle Criminal Lawyer.

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