Anyone who has watched a legal drama on television or read a legal thriller has heard the term “indictment” used repeatedly. In fact, they often make it sound as if every criminal prosecution involves an indictment. What exactly is an indictment though and what does it mean to be indicted? To clear up the mystery, a Tennessee criminal defense lawyer at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby explains when an indictment is usually used and how the indictment process works.
The United States Criminal Justice System
The United States criminal justice system operates under the presumption of innocence. An accused is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, you cannot be formally accused of committing a criminal offense without a basis for that accusation. An attorney for the state or federal government, known as a prosecuting attorney or district attorney, must have probable cause to believe an individual has committed an offense in order to bring charges and initiate a criminal prosecution. One way to establish the probable cause necessary to charge a suspect of a crime is by obtaining an indictment.
What Is an Indictment?
An indictment is essentially a formal accusation made against an individual who is suspected of committing a crime.
Contrary to the way in which the term is used by Hollywood, not all criminal prosecutions involve an indictment. In fact, at the state level, the majority of criminal cases do not begin with an indictment. At the state level, indictments are typically reserved for cases involving serious felonies as well as those that involve high profile defendants and/or crimes.
It is more common for a criminal prosecution to be initiated by a complaint filed by the prosecuting attorney. A complaint requires the prosecuting attorney to already have the probable cause needed to pursue criminal charges. Typically, this means that the defendant has already been arrested, either because the arresting officer observed conduct that gave rise to the necessary probable cause (as in a driving under the influence arrest) or because an investigation uncovered sufficient evidence to form the probable cause necessary for the arrest.
An indictment is another way to arrive at the probable cause necessary to prosecute a suspect. To obtain an indictment, the prosecuting attorney (or district attorney) must present evidence and/or testimony to the Grand Jury. A Grand Jury is a jury made of a group of 16-23 local citizens who are sworn in as a jury about every 18 months. Their job is to determine if sufficient probable cause exists to file formal criminal charges against an individual.
What Is a Grand Jury?
A Grand Jury is not the same as a trial jury. The Grand Jury is required to sit for a much longer period of time than a trial jury and where a trial jury hears and decides a single case, the Grand Jury will hear numerous cases. Moreover, in a criminal trial, both sides are allowed to present evidence and testimony; however, in a Grand Jury proceeding only the prosecution can present evidence and witness testimony. The accused can testify but may not present other witnesses in his/her behalf. Furthermore, the accused cannot question the prosecutor’s witnesses during a Grand Jury proceeding. Not surprisingly, obtaining an indictment is generally fairly easy for the prosecuting attorney under these conditions. If the Grand Jury agrees that probable cause exists, a “true bill” is returned and the prosecuting attorney (or D.A.) brings the indictment to court to initiate the prosecution.
Contact a Tennessee Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you have additional questions or concerns about an indictment in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Tennessee criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Contact the team at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.