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Criminal Indictments

Criminal Indictments in California

It can be a very unsettling experience to learn that you are under investigation for a crime—and especially so to learn that a grand jury is considering an indictment against you. 

An indictment means that a grand jury, not a prosecutor, has filed criminal charges against you. The indictment is a criminal charge that must be proven against you beyond a reasonable doubt. It's not a conviction and can't be used as evidence that you committed the crime charged.

Criminal Indictments in California
An "indictment" means that a grand jury has issued criminal charges against you.

The difference between being “charged” and “indicted” always depends on who found probable cause that you committed a crime. When charged with a crime, the District Attorney believes they found enough probable cause to prosecute you. When indicted, however, it means a grand jury found probable cause to prosecute you.

Notably, a charge or indictment leads to similar results in the end. Once charges are formally filed against you, the criminal case process begins. Charges are far more common than indictments, typically used in high-profile and federal cases.

In the federal criminal justice system, prosecutors are called United States Attorneys rather than District Attorneys. An indictment is filed only in grand jury cases.

California Penal Code 804 PC details how prosecution on a criminal case begins when charges are filed, the defendant is arraigned, or a bench or arrest warrant is issued. 

PC 804 says, “Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, for the purpose of this chapter, prosecution for an offense is commenced when any of the following occurs:

(a) An indictment or information is filed.

(b) A complaint is filed charging a misdemeanor or infraction.

(c) The defendant is arraigned on a complaint that charges the defendant with a felony.

(d) An arrest warrant or bench warrant is issued, provided the warrant names the defendant with the same degree of particularity required for an indictment, information, or complaint.

So, what does an indictment mean for you in California, how can it impact your life, and what (if anything) can you do to minimize the damage? Let's discuss criminal indictments in detail and how they work in the scope of California law.

What Is a Criminal Indictment?

An indictment is a formal charge or accusation of a serious crime. It is the result of a legal process where a grand jury, a group of citizens convened by the court, reviews evidence presented by the prosecutor to determine whether there is sufficient cause to bring someone to trial. 

Unlike a preliminary hearing, where a judge decides if there is enough evidence for a case to proceed, an indictment comes from the collective decision of the grand jury.

In the State of California, an indictment is typically only used for serious felony crimes. Prosecutors don't need an indictment to file charges against you. Still, they will often seek a grand jury indictment of severe offenses to bolster their claims and reduce the risk of having the charge dismissed for lack of probable cause. 

It carries more weight with the courts if the grand jury has already determined that the evidence warrants criminal charges. Indictments are never used for misdemeanor offenses.

What is the Grand Jury Process in California?

A grand jury in California is composed of 23 citizens who are sworn in for a 30-day term of service. Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury's job is not to determine your guilt or innocence; instead, these individuals are tasked with reviewing evidence presented by the prosecution to decide if there's enough proof to charge you with a crime.

The grand jury process is closed-door, meaning it's not open to the public or the media. The prosecution presents evidence, witnesses may be called, and the grand jury members can ask questions. 

However, the accused and their attorney cannot be present during these proceedings. After the evidence is presented, the jurors will decide by majority vote whether to recommend an indictment. 

Again, since the grand jury is not determining your guilt but only whether to recommend charges, only 12 of the 23 jurors need to vote yes to approve an indictment. To summarize, the grand jury process unfolds with the following stages: 

  • Selection and Convening: A grand jury secretly convenes to review evidence in potential criminal cases.
  • Presentation of Evidence: The prosecutor presents evidence to the grand jury, including documents, physical evidence, and testimonies from witnesses.
  • Deliberation: After reviewing the evidence, the grand jury deliberates to decide whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the suspect committed it.
  • Decision: If the grand jury finds sufficient evidence, it issues an indictment, formally charging the individual with a crime.

A prosecutor might choose to use the grand jury and indictment process rather than filing criminal charges under the following circumstances: 

The grand jury proceedings in federal cases are similar to state courts, but federal indictments are governed by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure rather than state procedural laws.

What is the Role of a Criminal Defense Attorney? 

The period before an indictment is issued is known as the pre-indictment phase. You might assume you don't need an attorney until you are formally indicted; however, a California criminal defense attorney can play a crucial role during pre-indictment in protecting your rights and developing a strategic defense. Here are some ways a skilled defense attorney can assist you:

  • Legal Guidance: An attorney can help you understand your rights and the legal procedures involved, providing clear, concise explanations of complex legal terminology and processes.
  • Interactions with Investigators: Your attorney can advise handling interactions with law enforcement or investigators, ensuring your rights are always protected. To avoid self-incrimination, you should never submit to questioning by law enforcement, investigators, or prosecutors without your attorney present.
  • Evidence Review: They can meticulously review any available evidence against you, identifying potential weaknesses in the prosecution's case that could be instrumental in challenging the charges.
  • Strategic Planning: Your attorney can begin to develop a strategic legal defense tailored to your specific situation, considering all possible outcomes and planning for various scenarios.
  • Plea Negotiations: If applicable, your attorney can negotiate plea deals with the prosecutor, potentially reducing your charges or sentencing and possibly avoiding a formal indictment altogether.
  • Positive Influence: Quite often, the simple knowledge that you have retained an attorney before indictment motivates prosecutors to negotiate and try to resolve the case out of court.

Contact our law firm for more information or a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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