An indictment is a formal written accusation charging an individual with a crime. An indictment is issued by a GRAND JURY when, in its view, there is PROBABLE CAUSE to believe that an individual has committed a crime.
Indictments generally arise in two ways. Most commonly, a prosecutor will submit a bill of indictment to the grand jury alleging specific criminal activity by an individual. If the grand jury believes the allegations, the grand jurors will endorse the bill of indictment with the words "a true bill" and thereby officially indict the accused individual. The grand jury can also decide that the accused should not be prosecuted, in which case the bill of indictment will be marked "no true bill" and be dismissed.
An indictment can also originate from a grand jury as a result of the grand jury's own information or as a result of an investigation conducted by a special or investigative grand jury. This type of indictment often arises in cases involving organized crime or political corruption after a secret, lengthy grand jury investigation.
Grand jurors need not be unanimous to indict. The federal grand jury, for example, consists of between sixteen and twenty-three persons, twelve of whom must concur to indict.
The indictment process had its origin in the English grand jury system. Indictments were designed, as the Supreme Court said in Costello v. United States (1956), to provide "a fair method for instituting criminal proceedings against persons believed to have committed crimes." Indictment by a grand jury was historically seen as a way of ensuring that citizens were protected against unfounded criminal prosecutions; however, there is now considerable debate as to whether indictment actually fulfills its protective function. Indictments are also designed to inform accused individuals of the charges against them so that they may adequately prepare their defense.
Under the Fifth Amendment an individual has a right to a grand jury indictment in all federal FELONY prosecutions. The Supreme Court, however, held in HURTADO V. CALIFORNIA (1884) that grand jury indictments are not constitutionally required in state criminal prosecutions. Nevertheless, some states, pursuant to their state constitutions,
require grand jury indictments in all felony prosecutions.
One recurring question about indictments has been whether they can be based on EVIDENCE that would be inadmissible at trial. The Supreme...