Federal criminal charges can be complicated – not simply because of the seriousness of charge, but the process involved from investigation to indictment. The federal process is much different when compared to the process.
Central to the federal criminal process involves federal grand jury investigations. Not many people have experience with federal grand juries, which makes their purpose and how they work a bit of a mystery. However, every Texan and every American should understand federal grand juries in case you find yourself at the center of one of their investigations.
Federal Grand Juries: What Are They?
The trials most often seen on television dramas involve impaneled juries, technically called a petit jury. They are empanelled to decide the guilt or innocence of someone charged with a crime.
A federal grand jury, however, is used to investigate suspected criminal wrongdoing and decide whether there is sufficient probable cause to bring criminal charges. Theoretically, this type of jury works as a shield to the public, because they protect the people from being accused of crimes by the government without evidence.
The age old axiom that a grand jury can “indict a ham sandwich” is true. It really does not take much evidence to bring a federal criminal indictment. An indictment is nothing more than an accusation of criminal wrongdoing which must be viewed through the “presumption of innocence” constitutional lens.
What Evidence Do They Examine?
Most of the evidence presented to a federal grand jury comes from the assistant U.S. Attorneys. The grand jury can consider evidence outside of these sources, but it must consult with government attorneys first.
In most cases, the federal grand jury will be presented evidence by the government that is believed to support the accusation that a crime has been committed by a person, organization, or entity.
Are Federal Grand Juries a Secret?
The proceedings of a federal grand jury are totally secret. The only people allowed to be present during the process are the prosecutors, court reporters, jury members, interpreters, and witnesses.
The witnesses in a federal grand jury investigation are not bound by a secrecy rule about their testimony, but everyone else must abide by the secrecy protocols explained to them.
Why all the secrecy?
It’s because they don’t want whoever is under federal investigation to try to influence the jury or increase the risk that the person may flee the country. Ultimately, however, the secrecy is to protect the reputation of the person being investigated – because everyone in the country is innocent until proven guilty in court.
It’s important to note, however, that the grand jury process is one-sided. That means that the person who is being investigated cannot be present nor can their lawyer. It’s this one-sided process that leads many grand juries to issue indictments.
What Are Federal Grand Jury Subpoenas?
A subpoena compels someone to testify. This person may be an individual or part of an organization, but if they get a subpoena it will ask for them to testify in person or to supply documents as ordered by the court.
Federal grand jury subpoenas are issued by the Assistant United States Attorney handling the case. Even when a subpoena is issued in the name of the federal grand jury, it’s ultimately the U.S. Attorney who decides whether or not to issue it.
What If You Are Issued a Federal Grand Jury Subpoena
A federal grand jury subpoena is not something you can simply ignore. If you are issued one, then it’s advisable to find an experienced attorney to represent you in the matter. Your attorney can ensure that you completely understand the federal grand jury process. they can speak to the prosecutor on your behalf, and they can determine if you are the target of the investigation or simply a witness. They can also assess whether all parts of the subpoena are proper and advise you on your rights – including your Fifth Amendment rights – if you do testify.
What Jurisdiction Do Federal Grand Juries Have?
There are limits to the power of the federal grand jury. It can only examine evidence and issue indictments on federal crimes that have been committed within the district it has been impaneled. It also only has the power to investigate criminal activity since its only purpose is to determine if there is sufficient probable cause to bring federal charges against a person for a crime.
Federal grand juries may seem intimidating, but if you ever must deal with one, then have an experienced lawyer at your side.