What Is a Grand Jury?
A grand jury is comprised of members of the public who are selected and compiled from multiple sources. Those sources typically include voter registration, driver's licenses, and tax records. A typical federal grand jury is a group of anywhere from 16 to 23 citizens. The particular number of jurors in state grand juries can differ widely from one state to the next.
What Does a Grand Jury Do?
The role of the grand jury is to review and consider evidence that is presented before them by a prosecutor. That prosecutor can work for the local county in state cases or the U.S. Attorney's Office in federal proceedings. The purpose of the grand jury is to make a determination whether there is enough evidence from what is presented to make a formal charge against the defendant(s), such that the defendant(s) would be required to respond to the alleged charges.
Grand Jury Indictment Process
The U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment requires that charges for all capital crimes and offenses be asserted by an indictment process that is returned by a grand jury. The Fifth Amendment has also been used in American jurisprudence to require that an indictment be used to charge defendants with federal felony offenses unless the defendant waives his or her right to be indicted by a grand jury. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the Fifth Amendment's provisions regarding grand jury indictment are not applicable and binding on the individual states, so states are able to use grand juries if they so desire.
When a grand jury process is used, ordinary citizens are selected to form a panel. That panel then investigates criminal activity on a secret and confidential basis. The panel issues an indictment that commences the criminal justice process and specific proceedings. In grand jury hearings at the state level, there is no judge, defendant, or defense attorney present and participating in the proceedings. A foreman is elected by the panel to lead the investigation process and prepare the indictment. In some jurisdictions, the foreman is selected by the court. Once a grand jury indictment is complete, law enforcement begins the process of apprehending and arresting the defendant who was the subject of the indictment process. This action commences the criminal justice process.
State Grand Jury Procedures
Not surprisingly, the lack of a unified federal mandate applicable to all states has created a situation in which each individual state has its own grand jury procedures. In some jurisdictions, the states follow federal procedures. In other jurisdictions, states offer an optional indictment process that permits a prosecutor to file a complaint or information that charges a defendant with an offense on a formal basis.
Federal Grand Jury Procedures
Federal grand juries are very much like their state counterparts. They meet secretly. No judge, defendant, or defense counsel participates. The federal prosecutor, a U.S. attorney, is charged with presenting the case to the panel, which is comprised of members of the public. A simple majority vote is what is needed for a federal grand jury indictment. The federal grand jury foreman prepares the indictment and tenders it to a federal magistrate judge. Once the indictment process concludes, an arrest warrant is usually issued for the defendant(s). This starts the criminal justice process at the federal level.