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What Is an Indictment?

Written by on March 21, 2023

What is an indictment?

An indictment is a formal accusation that a person has committed a crime. It contains the basic information about the charges being filed.

Why is it necessary?

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution requires that the government seek an indictment before prosecuting someone for a federal felony offense.

What about state charges?

While the Fifth Amendment only applies to federal charges, many states have set up a similar system for indictments, requiring them for felony charges.

What is a felony?

A felony is typically defined as an offense punishable by a term of imprisonment of at least one year. Felonies are more serious than misdemeanor offenses, most of which do not require an indictment for charges to be brought.

How does an indictment begin?

After reviewing the facts of a case, a prosecutor will decide whether there is enough evidence to continue pursuing it, and if so, will present the case to a citizen’s panel, known as a grand jury.

What is a grand jury?

A grand jury hears evidence about a case and decides whether there is probable cause for criminal charges to be filed. Grand jurors do not determine the guilt or innocence of the suspect. Federal grand juries are made up of between 16 and 23 people. At least 12 jurors must agree before an indictment can be issued.

Can indictments be sealed?

Because an indictment comes after a grand jury but usually before an arrest, the prosecutor can seal an indictment, or keep it hidden from the public, for the amount of time needed to prevent the defendant or other suspects from fleeing or destroying evidence.

What happens after an indictment?

After a grand jury recommends indictment, the suspect is usually arrested and formally charged. The case then proceeds in court, with multiple legal paths possible, including a plea agreement or a trial.

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