What is a Federal Grand Jury?

According to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury.”

That grand jury referred to in the Constitution must consist of between 16 and 23 people empanelled to listen to evidence presented by a federal prosecutor to determine whether evidence exists to charge a person with violation of a federal crime. (Typically a felony).

Basic differences between grand juries and trial juries

o Unlike trial juries, also known as petit juries, grand juries do not determine whether as person is innocent or guilty of the crime. All they do is determine whether the prosecution has shown there is “probable cause” that a crime was committed and that a particular person or person probably committed it.

o Jurors are not screened for biases like they are in typical trials.

o Also, unlike in typical trials, jurors themselves can ask questions to witnesses. Sometimes the jury foreperson will ask questions after a prosecutor has finished with a witness. Other times, jurors will ask prosecutors to ask questions for them.

o With grand jury proceedings, the prosecuting attorney presents evidence directly to the jurors — there’s no judge around, so no objections can be raised.

o The deliberations are done in secret. The only people generally allowed inside the grand jury room include: the prosecutor, the witness being examined, the jurors and a court reporter (and, possibly, an interpreter).

o If the jury finds that there is a probable cause that you did commit the crime, they issue what’s known as an indictment. This is a piece of paper prepared by the prosecutor which sets forth the legal charges against the person indicted.

o A grand jury indictment is needed before someone can be prosecuted for a federal criminal charge. Grand juries also exist in states, but only about half of states use grand jury systems.

The Prosecutors’ Ballgame

In may ways, it’s the prosecutors’ ballgame. The prosecutor gets to pick what witnesses will be called and what kind of evidence to show the jury. The witness’s attorney will have to wait outside the room. The witness can consult with his or her attorney.

Prosecutors can subpoena nearly anyone to go before a grand jury — even without probable cause that that person has significant information about the case. And the person subpoenaed must answer questions asked by either the prosecutor or the jurors, unless the person can invoke a privilege, such as Fifth Amendment self-incrimination protection; lawyer-client privilege; or marital privilege.

There is no attorney allowed in the Grand Jury room. In federal cases, the attorney may wait outside the Grand Jury room and the witness may leave the room to confer with his or her attorney during the proceedings.

Help with Federal Criminal Charges

If you or a loved one stands accused of a federal crime, you must to find an experienced federal criminal defense attorney to represent you and advise you about how to best handle these very serious charges.