Indictments in Federal Criminal Cases
This article discusses several important aspects of the indictment and its role in a federal criminal case. If you or a family member has been indicted or is concerned with being indicted for a violation of federal law, timely intervention by an experienced federal court practitioner who specializes in criminal defense is essential to maximizing the chances of a positive outcome.
In federal criminal procedure, one of the most commonly used charging documents is the indictment. A federal indictment is an official document where someone formally charged with a crime.
A case was presented to a federal grand jury, which determined a trial should occur. It’s how a federal prosecutor starts their proceedings, but sometimes a federal case will start through a “criminal complaint” or “criminal information.”
The precise layout of the document will vary depending on the jurisdiction, but there are several common features to the structure and content of all federal indictments.
For example, the top of the document will have the name of the district court, case number, the “caption” of the case that shows what parties are involved, and what “counts” (charges) are within the document.
Federal prosecutors obtain indictments through a grand jury, which is a body of 16 to 23 ordinary citizens within the community. They listen to evidence and testimony from witnesses that are presented by the prosecutor.
They are allowed to ask questions and subpoena witnesses or documents on their own. After they hear all the evidence, they will take a vote on whether or not to indict and if enough probable cause exist to believe the defendant is guilty. An indictment has to receive at least 12 votes in favor before a “true bill” is created.
Federal grand juries at not without some controversy. Many people, including criminal defense lawyers, argue against the current concept of a grand jury due to the fact there is a very low standard to establish probable cause. Additionally, the hearings are conducted in secret, which makes it easy for a prosecutor to obtain an indictment.
To give readers more useful information about indictments, our federal criminal defense attorneys are providing a detailed review below.
What is a Federal Indictment?
When a defendant is indicted in federal court, the federal government has formally accused someone of one or more violations of the laws of the United States and committed itself to prosecute the defendant.
Because the indictment lists the specific violations of law, known as counts, filed against the defendant and against which someone will have to defend themselves, the indictment is one of the more important documents in a federal criminal case.
The most important function of the indictment is to give the defendant adequate notice of the charges against them being brought by the government. In order to find the defendant guilty, the government must prove each element of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. Mounting a defense therefore begins necessarily with understanding the crimes alleged and their individual elements.
Without this understanding, the defendant cannot reasonably be expected to realistically appraise the strength of the government’s evidence and the relative benefits of either negotiating a plea agreement or preparing to fight the charges in a jury trial in federal court.
The indictment provides enough specificity, though by no means all of the detail which will come through in discovery, to put the defendant on notice of what they are facing.
Federal Grand Jury
As stated above, an indictment must be brought by a grand jury, which is a panel of about 16 to 23 members of the community who have no connection to the defendant or to the government attorneys seeking an indictment.
This panel of neutral citizens will be presented with the government’s evidence against the defendant and the requested charges which federal prosecutors believe are supported by the evidence.
Ultimately, it is in the grand jury’s power to either accept the recommendations of the government attorneys or reject them. The United States constitution requires all federal felony crimes to be charged through an indictment brought to a grand jury.
The limited number of federal misdemeanor crimes – usually minor offenses which happen to occur in exclusively federal jurisdiction such as military bases or national parks – may be charged directly by a federal prosecutor.
For the majority of serious crimes under federal law which qualify as felonies, however, the grand jury must participate in order for the case to proceed.
Conspiracy and RICO Cases
In the case of conspiracy cases or RICO cases, the indictment will often contain a large number of overt acts which the various defendants and unindicted co-conspirators have allegedly committed in furtherance of the conspiracy or criminal enterprise.
These acts also form a road map to help the defendant understand the scope and details of the criminal accusations against them and against any co-defendants.
These overt acts will give defense counsel an understanding of the important discovery which is likely to be in the government’s possession and thereby help in the trial preparation phase of the case.
Determining Probable Cause
One important aspect of an indictment which differentiates it from some state court charging documents which are brought directly by prosecutors against defendants charged with felonies is the lack of a probable cause hearing.
In a grand jury scenario, an independent check on the prosecutor’s ability to charge a defendant, leading to their arrest, with a felony. The grand jury’s task is to determine probable cause. Therefore, by the time an indictment comes down from the grand jury, the issue of probable cause has already been settled.
There is therefore no requirement for a preliminary hearing or other similar probable cause hearing in a federal case charged by indictment.
This gives the defendant one less opportunity to potentially cross-examine the government’s case prior to deciding whether to settle through a negotiated plea agreement or try the case before a jury in a federal courthouse.
Contact our Federal Criminal Attorneys
If you have received a federal indictment, then it means a prosecutor believes they have sufficient evidence to convict you. An indictment is only an allegation, but it can result in harsh consequences.
Our skilled federal criminal defense lawyers will work aggressively to avoid an indictment from the beginning. However, as stated, prosecutors only have to establish probable cause to obtain an indictment. This means it’s often very difficult for a defense lawyer to be successful at this stage and the focus must be on developing and effective strategy to fight the charges.
If you, or someone you know, is charged in federal court by indictment with a felony violation of the laws of the United States, contact our experienced federal criminal defense team for an initial consultation. We can leverage our experience in federal courts to help you achieve the best possible outcome in your case.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-rated criminal defense law firm that represents clients throughout the United States against federal crimes. We are based in Los Angeles County at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Contact our firm for an immediate response at (877) 781-1570.