What Do Grand Juries Do?

April 17, 2015

A grand jury is an agency of the court, composed of 15 to 21 citizens. They determine whether there is probable cause in a criminal case, and if they find that there is probable cause, they indict, or formally accuse, the suspect. Grand juries may also report on the public welfare, even if there are no criminal charges involved.

Procedure

The primary duty of a grand jury is to initiate criminal proceedings. Grand juries determine whether there is probable cause that a suspect committed the crime of which he or she is accused. Probable cause means a reasonable suspicion of guilt, backed up by circumstances.

Before grand jury proceedings begin, the prosecuting attorney decides whether a case should proceed by indictment or by information. A grand jury indicts, while a state attorney files an information. Both are formal accusations. In capital cases, a grand jury indictment, rather than an information, is required for a trial. However, in other cases, either an indictment or an information may be used.

If the case proceeds by indictment, the prosecution will examine witnesses and present evidence to the grand jury during a hearing. The grand jury may also examine witnesses and request further evidence. At this stage of the proceedings, the accused does not have the opportunity to defend him or herself.

If the grand jury finds probable cause that the accused has committed the crime, they return an indictment and a trial may begin. Even if the grand jury does not return an indictment, they can report their findings and make recommendations.

Privacy

The grand jury is an independent entity. It does not answer to anyone except the court that empanels it, and then only to the extent that the grand jury has exceeded its authority. The proceedings, including the hearing, the deliberations, and voting, are closed. Only the indictment is made public. Florida law provides that a grand jury witness’s testimony, including the accused if he or she is a witness, may not be disclosed except in a few narrow circumstances. However, a person may be accused of perjury based on false grand jury testimony.

Distinguished from Petit Jury

A grand jury is completely different in purpose from a petit jury, also known as a trial jury. The more familiar petit jury tries a case, hearing witnesses and examining evidence, and then returns a verdict of either guilty or not guilty. Similarly to a petit jury, a grand jury hears witnesses and examines evidence. However, they do not determine guilt but instead decide whether the case should be brought to trial. The standard for returning an indictment, which is probable cause, is much lower than the standard required for finding a person guilty, which requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Additionally, unlike a petit jury, the grand jury does not hear both sides of the case.

The services and advice of an experienced attorney are invaluable if you are facing criminal charges. A dedicated attorney can help you to understand the legal process and make sure that your best interests are represented. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a free initial consultation.