Understanding how federal criminal cases are carried out -- II

Back in December, our blog began discussing how terms like federal crime, federal investigation and federal prosecution automatically bring certain images to mind -- courtroom sketches, federal agents carrying boxes of evidences away, "perp walks" -- thanks to popular media.

We also discussed how these various mental images are only part of a much bigger process in federal criminal cases, which begin with comprehensive investigations. We'll continue this discussion in today's post, focusing on the next stage in the aforementioned process: the grand jury.

Once the investigation is completed and the entirety of the evidence handed over to the federal prosecutor, they will proceed to examine everything presented and speak with the individuals involved in order to determine whether to present the case to a federal grand jury.

If they do, a group of 16-23 impartial citizens -- i.e., the grand jury -- will be assembled to listen to the prosecutor present a broad outline of their potential case against a particular person complete with presentation of evidence and perhaps even witness testimony.

Once the prosecutor is finished presenting their case, the grand jury will hold a secret vote to determine whether they believe the federal government has sufficient evidence -- or probable cause -- to charge the person in question with a criminal offense.

If at least 12 of the jurors believe that sufficient evidence does indeed exist, an indictment, meaning a formal notice informing the now-defendant of the charges against them, will be handed down. In the event the majority of jurors believe otherwise, no indictment will be handed down and the case is effectively settled.

It's important to understand that even though the individual states are not required to use grand juries, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that the U.S. Constitution -- via the Fifth Amendment -- mandates the use of grand juries by the federal government in all felony cases.

Some other important facts to keep in mind about federal grand juries, include:

  • The proceedings and statements are sealed, such that no one outside the courtroom knows what statements were made
  • Only specific persons are allowed to attend, including government attorneys, witnesses, interpreters (if needed) and a court reporter. In other words, no judge, no individuals facing potential criminal charges and no other attorneys
  • The proceedings are not governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence, such that the prosecutor has considerable leeway in presenting their case

We'll examine more about the next step in the process, the initial hearing, in a future post …

In the meantime, consider speaking with a skilled legal professional as soon as possible if you learn that you are under investigation for any type of federal crime as time is of the absolute essence. 

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