6. How does the government initiate criminal charges?
If criminal conduct constitutes a misdemeanor, the prosecutor will file a document called an “information” with the court. This document attests that there is sufficient evidence to bring charges against the defendant. If the alleged criminal conduct constitutes a felony, the prosecutor must submit the case to a “grand jury” to seek an indictment. A grand jury is a group of citizens chosen at random to serve this judicial function. The grand jury must consist of at least 16 citizens who live in the court’s jurisdiction. The grand jury will hear evidence and vote on whether to send a case to trial. To issue an indictment, a majority of the grand jury must vote that a crime has been committed and that there is sufficient evidence to warrant the accused standing trial. The grand jury does not determine guilty or innocence; rather, it determines whether probable cause exists to believe the accused committed the alleged crime. The grand jury has broad investigatory power, such as the authority to subpoena business records or witnesses to testify. Grand jury proceedings are kept confidential to protect the accused. To issue an indictment, the court will issue a “true bill”. If the grand jury declines to indict, it will issue a “no true bill”. If an indictment is issued, the indicted person is still presumed to be innocent until convicted by a court of law.
• Discussion: Should a grand jury be the final decision maker in determining whether to initiate a prosecution? Should public sentiment or a prosecutor’s sentiment about an accused have any bearing on whether the grand jury hands down an indictment? Why do you think grand jury proceedings are closed to the public and confidential? How do you feel about that fact that the grand jury is often used as an investigatory tool for its ability to solicit testimony and subpoena witnesses and information?
• Practice Question: Darla calls the police and reports that a suspicious man is outside of her house and trespassing on her property. She provides a description of the individual. Justin, a police officer, arrives and detains Bill for trespass. The Officer Justin is aware of several burglaries in the neighborhood and has suspicions about Bill. He takes bill to the police station. Justin then calls witnesses to the prior burglaries who pick Bill out of a suspect line up as the perpetrator. What would be the process for initiating misdemeanor charges against Bill for trespass? What would be the process for initiating felony charges for burglary?