Federal Indictments in Criminal Cases
When federal charges are formally filed against someone for a felony offense, it's referred to as a federal indictment. To be issued, a grand jury must decide if there is sufficient evidence to prove that you committed the crime. You would be informed of the criminal charges through the indictment.
In other words, in federal cases, grand juries decide essential issues throughout the legal process. They are a group of impartial citizens who decide whether you will be charged with a federal crime. During grand jury proceedings, witnesses can be called to testify, evidence presented, and the government will summarize the case.
Notably, however, these proceedings are held in secret, which is often a debated topic. This means you or your lawyer are not there to defend you at this stage in the federal criminal justice system.
Members of the grand jury will listen to the government's arguments and look at the evidence. They are allowed to ask questions and subpoena witnesses or documents independently. They will vote on probable cause to charge you with a crime.
In some complex federal cases, this indictment process could take a few days, weeks, or even longer. If they decide you will be charged, the case will proceed to a federal trial.
Suppose the grand jury determines that you should not be charged. In that case, there will be no federal indictment. If this happens, everything they heard and the evidence presented will be sealed, and your identity will remain anonymous.
Usually, a federal grand jury has around 16 to 23 members, and only certain people can be in the room. To indict someone, 12 or more jurors must agree before a “true bill” is created. A federal grand jury indictment is the initial step for the prosecutor to file criminal allegations against you formally.
18 U.S. Code 3282 says, “(a) In general, except as otherwise expressly provided by law, no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense, not capital, unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within five years next after such offense shall have been committed.”
Federal Indictments – Explained
A federal criminal case begins when a federal prosecutor files a “criminal complaint” or “criminal information.” The difference is explained below:
- A criminal complaint, which is the most common, is a statement with facts of the offense that allow someone to conclude a crime was most likely committed and that you were probably responsible. It's usually supported by a statement made under oath by a law enforcement agent that outlines an investigation to establish probable cause for an arrest warrant.
- Criminal information is typically presented to a magistrate judge. They will review the information and decide if there is probable cause to show a crime was committed. Notably, however, criminal information does not require a grand jury proceeding.
A charge is brought up to a grand jury during a sealed federal indictment. This means the public cannot search sealed indictments, and witnesses can't be named until just before the trial because they might be confidential informants. The layout of the federal indictment will vary depending on jurisdiction, but there are several common features, such as the following:
- the name of the district court,
- case number,
- the “caption” of the case that shows what the involved parties and
- what “counts” (charges) within the document.
Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 7 - The Indictment and the Information says, “(c) Nature and Contents. (1) In General. The indictment or information must be a plain, concise, and definite written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense charged and must be signed by an attorney for the government. It need not contain a formal introduction or conclusion….”
As noted, federal grand juries are controversial because there is a low standard to establish probable cause, and the hearings are conducted in secret, which makes it easy for a prosecutor to get an indictment.
Federal Indictments – Quick Facts
There is some important information you should know about federal indictments, such as the following:
- The grand jury's task is to determine probable cause.
- There is no requirement for a preliminary or probable cause hearing in a federal case charged by indictment.
- When you are indicted in federal court, the government has formally accused you of one or more violations of United States federal laws.
- The indictment is a crucial document in a federal criminal case and will list all the specific violations of law, called “counts,” filed against you.
- In the case of conspiracy or RICO cases, the indictment will contain several overt acts of various defendants and unindicted co-conspirators to further the conspiracy or criminal enterprise.
- The function of the indictment is to give you adequate notice of the charges brought by the government.
- To find the defendant guilty, the government has to prove each element of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.
What is the Federal Indictment Process?
The United States Constitution requires all federal felony crimes to be charged through an indictment brought to a grand jury. An indictment is the most commonly used charging document in federal criminal procedure. A federal indictment is an official document where someone is formally charged with a crime.
First, however, a criminal case can only proceed following the indictment process. Once you are notified of the indictment, the case has to go to trial within 70 days unless you waive your speedy trial rights.
Your federal criminal defense lawyer must be provided with the case discovery, which is all the evidence against you. The discovery process helps your defense counsel determine the best strategy as it reveals what you are up against.
Suppose your attorney believes there are some issues with the discovery. In that case, they can file a motion with the court to review the information in the motion and decide before the trial.
During the trial, the prosecutor has the burden of proof on every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Your defense lawyer will make arguments on your behalf. This entire process can sometimes take a few months or much longer.
What Are the Typical Steps in a Federal Criminal Case?
While they often vary, there are some typical steps in a federal criminal case, such as the following:
- Investigation by a prosecutor who will review a case and decide whether it should be sent to a federal grand jury (felony cases).
- Criminal charges are for anyone indicted will be notified they are charged with a federal crime.
- Arraignment is soon after the arrest; an initial hearing will occur. The judge determines whether there is probable cause.
- Discovery is the evidence against you must be provided to your lawyer.
- Plea bargaining is offering a plea deal instead of a trial.
- Preliminary hearing option occurs if you plead not guilty and is a type of mini-trial, also called a pretrial hearing.
- Pre-trial motions are written requests for the court to rule on evidence, documents, witnesses, etc.
- Trial is where the case is presented to the jury.
- Post-trial motions occur after a conviction, such as a new trial.
- Sentencing occurs a few months after the conviction and where the judge determines your sentence.
- Appeals are sometimes filed if you are found guilty.
Why You Need a Federal Criminal Defense
If you are indicted, a prosecutor believes they have sufficient evidence to convict you, but it's still just an allegation. You need a federal criminal defense lawyer to negotiate and try to avoid an indictment in the first place.
However, since prosecutors only have to establish probable for an indictment, it's often difficult to be successful at this stage in the federal criminal process.
Suppose you or a family member is charged in federal court by indictment that alleges violations of United States Laws. In that case, you will need legal counsel to have the best chance at a favorable outcome.
When searching for a qualified defense attorney for a federal case, you need someone you feel comfortable with and who has the necessary skills. Contact us for a free case evaluation. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, California.
- How Long Does It Take to Resolve a Federal Criminal Case?
- Your Attorney’s Job in a Federal Criminal Case
- How is Bail Determined in Federal Criminal Cases?
- What is a Federal Indictment?
- Failure to Appear
- Rule 7. The Indictment and the Information
- Rule 9. Arrest Warrant or Summons on an Indictment or Information
- 18 U.S. Code 3282 - Offenses Not Capital
- Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER)