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How a Federal Grand Jury Hands Down an Indictment

When any person who is a resident of the United States is accused of a federal felony, the U.S. Constitution guarantees each citizen the right to a Federal Grand Jury proceeding that's findings will decide if any or all federal charges listed in a federal criminal complaint should move forward. This protection is found under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution which specifies "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment of a Grand Jury."

The Federal Grand Jury process also relates to any foreign nationals living inside the boundaries of the United States as well as those that may be at large or residing and in hiding abroad. Persons may be indicted in absentia.

Grand Juries are also assembled by certain states but under a Supreme Court ruling this process is not mandatory or required although about half of the states do use this process in felony cases.

A Federal Grand Jury is made up of sixteen to twenty three panel members and is assembled after a federal investigation is begun by the United States Attorney's office of after a federal complaint is filed by the arresting agency. The process is secret and not administered by a judge or magistrate.

When a federal complaint is brought to a Grand Jury, those making up the panel will hear evidence presented by the complainant, generally the U.S. Attorney or an Assistant U.S. Attorney, which will introduce evidence guiding the panel in deciding if a crime, or number of crimes have been committed by the accused that is worthwhile to pursue for a future trial. The prosecutor will be a strong advocate for convincing them to hand down an Indictment but the weight of the evidence presented should influence the members of the jury to meet the requirements for their decision to hand down an Indictment or not.

This practice is extended under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure when a federal Grand Jury of a simple majority of its members agrees to bring forward an Indictment.

Unlike a regular trial jury (petit jury), a decision by a Grand Jury does not have to be unanimous. If the majority's decision is in the affirmative to the allegations of the complaint, once coming to that determination, demonstrating a more than likely probability that the charges have merit based on the presented evidence, the panel returns what is known as a "true bill". If the result of the majority's opinion is that the presented facts are not believable or strong enough, and they will most likely not return a conviction at trial, the panel will presumably return what is called a "no bill" setting an end to the current case.

However, because a Grand Jury hearing doesn't follow the same rules of evidence as a regular trial, a suspect's right to their own defense is principally limited. The prosecutor who lays out all the charges is not compelled to inform the Grand Jury of evidence that may be favorable for the accused and the defendant is not represented by counsel during the proceedings as well. This basically gives the leading advocate for the prosecution free reign and allows them complete discretion for permitting the panel to hear only the facts and scenarios that they want them to recognize.

Since The Federal Rules of Evidence are not in force, a prosecutor can decide which evidence to present to the panel, ask questions that would be considered leading, and follow a line of questioning that would be deemed irrelevant if presented at trial. If the accused is not yet in custody they may not even know that a hearing is going on and if an arrest had already taken place the suspect is not allowed to present contrary evidence, or tell their side of the story, and is not given access to the testimony of the prosecution until if and when a regular trial commences.

Additionally, because there is no defense counsel to act as an advocate for the accused, jurors can consider many arguments that would be objectionable in a regular trial. Some of these elements include evidence which may have been illegally obtained as well as evidence that might be considered hearsay. Because Federal Grand Jury members are not isolated they may also improperly make their personal decision based upon media coverage of the case rumors and their own familiarity with the suspected crime.

Because of the nature of the workings of a Grand Jury Proceeding it is critical to hire a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who specializes in federal legal matters as early as possible. If you, a family member or close friend are aware that a federal investigation has been initiated, an experienced attorney whose practice includes federal criminal defense can begin to plan a proper strategy to avoid possible liability prior to the beginning of a grand jury investigation or after an indictment is handed down or during a trial when a plea agreement may not be possible or desired.

My law firm specializes in federal criminal defense and meets all the above criteria to fight for an individual's rights, and counter all charges at any stage of the federal legal process. As a former Assistant Federal Prosecutor, I have personal experience identifying how the government will proceed in all federal criminal prosecutions.

If you live in Dade, Broward or Palm Beach County and are in need of a criminal defense attorney who specializes in federal law, my office is conveniently located in the heart of Fort Lauderdale close to Interstate 95. My practice services all counties located within the State of Florida

To view my credentials and find out what you should do next if it's determined that you've become the object of a federal investigation or have been arrested and charged with a federal crime, click here.