The Basics of a Federal Indictment

An indictment is the formal initiation of federal criminal proceedings. A prosecutor cannot obtain an arrest warrant or file criminal charges without a federal indictment.  An indictment is issued when the federal prosecutor formally charges an individual with a crime. For most indictments in the United States, a federal prosecutor relies on a grand jury to issue the federal indictment.

Federal Indictment Under the Sixth Amendment

A federal indictment is required by the U.S. Constitution. As a Constitutional right afforded to all federal and state defendants, the issuance of a federal indictment is one of the U.S.’s most highly respected and crucial parts of a federal criminal case.

Federal indictments are specifically required by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Sixth Amendment says, “No person should be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentation or indictment of a Grand Jury.” This Constitutional requirement is understood to mean that any offense that is a federal felony requires the indictment of a grand jury.

Two Exceptions Under the Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment does contain two exceptions to a federal grand jury. The first is for cases arising on land or in the navel forces. The second is interrelated and doesn’t require a grand jury for cases in the military when the defendant is in actual service during a time of war or public danger. These exceptions are narrowly applicable to the branches of the United States armed forces.

What Is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury is a jury of 16 to 23 people that is tasked with investigating the evidence collected by law enforcement to determine if a crime was committed. A grand jury acts independent of federal law enforcement and the federal prosecutor, and their main role is to be a intermediary between the federal prosecutor and the general public.

A grand jury differs greatly from a trial jury. There are more jurors empaneled on a grand jury, their investigation into a criminal matter is done in a closed court with just the prosecutor and judge present, and the evidentiary standard of a grand jury is far different. A grand jury is convened or empaneled for a lengthy period of time – often up to one month – and the grand jury is convened in secret, not in open court.

During a criminal trial, the trial jury must find that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a grand jury must simply determine that there is adequate basis for bringing criminal charges.This is legally called probable cause.  If the prosecutor establishes probable cause that an individual committed a specific crime, then the grand jury will return an indictment.

Challenging a Federal Indictment

It is possible to challenge a federal indictment before the start of a criminal trial. Federal defense lawyers are regularly hired to assist with these challenges and when successful these challenges can save substantial resources, court costs, and time.

Possible challenges to a federal indictment can be made on the basis of:

  • The indictment doesn’t provide the defendant sufficient notice of the charges or adequate inform the defendant of the nature of the crime;
  • The statute of limitations has passed for the alleged federal offense;
  • The district court in the indictment doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear the federal criminal case; and
  • The indictment failed to state an actual criminal offense or violation of the law.

Making these arguments against a federal indictment isn’t easy. Challenges are rare and winning these challenges is even less common – which is why you need the assistance of a federal defense lawyer.

Find a top federal defense lawyer to fight your indictment.