Indictment in Federal Case

Indictments in Federal Criminal Cases

This article address many questions concerning indictments in federal criminal cases and the charging documents that initial federal criminal cases. The indictment in federal court plays several key roles and its origins date back to the Constitution and our Founding Fathers. Identifying and beginning to work with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney that specializes in federal criminal defense will maximize your changes for the best possible outcome, if you or a loved one has been indicted or you are about to be indicted by the grand jury in federal court. 

The most commonly used charging document in federal criminal cases is the indictment; however, other tools exist to initiate federal prosecution. Some federal prosecutions are initiated through a Criminal Complaint or Criminal Information. The layout and appearance of the indictment in your case will vary by federal district; however, some elements will be present in every federal criminal indictment. Every federal indictment will have the following elements:

  1. Style of the case: listing the United States of America as the Plaintiff and the name of each individual federal defendant, the jurisdiction of the case, and the case number, which in federal court includes the initials of the federal district judge over your case.
  2. Charges: the alleged federal crimes will be listed on the indictment and their corresponding statutory authority, such as: Possession of a Firearm by a Prohibited Person – 18 U.S.C. § 922; Bank Robbery – 18 U.S.C. § 2113; Wire Fraud – 18 U.S.C. § 1343; and Federal Drug Trafficking –18 U.S.C. § 841, which are some of the most common federal crimes.
  3. Factual Allegations to Support Charges: the indictment will also list a very abbreviated set of facts to support the factual basis for the charges in the indictment, which is far less than will be received in discovery and does not list witness information. 
  4. Signatures: the indictment will be signed by the federal prosecutor over the grand jury proceeding and the foreman of the grand jury proceeding. 

How do Federal Prosecutors Obtain an Indictment?

The United States Attorney’s Office in the federal district where an alleged federal crime takes place will present documents, photographs, witnesses, and other types of evidence to the grand jury, which will consider whether there is sufficient evidence in indict. Federal prosecutors can call the grand jury into session; however, they cannot force the grand jury to indict a potential federal criminal defendant. 

Federal grand juries are a body of citizens within the federal district that prosecution would take place, consisting of 16 to 23 people, that listen to evidence presented by the federal prosecutor. Federal prosecutors present the majority of the evidence and witness testimony considered by the grand jury; however, grand jurors are able to ask questions of each witness and subpoena witnesses and documentary evidence they want to consider. 

Once the grand jury has heard and seen all the evidence they need to consider the case, they grand jury will vote whether or not to indict the federal criminal defendant. The grand jury does not need proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict, rather the grand jury need only believe probable cause evidence exists in order to indict. In order to be a “True Bill” indictment there must be at least 12 votes in favor of indicting the defendant. 

Grand juries are conducted in secret and probable cause is a very low standard. Therefore, it is possible to be indicted for a federal crime without sufficient evidence to convict someone. This is only one reason why it is so important to contain and retain an experienced federal criminal defense attorney to represent you before and during the indictment process. 

What is the purpose of a Federal Indictment?

The purpose of a federal indictment is to bring formal criminal charges against a potential federal criminal defendant. Federal indictment is the primary tool, by which federal prosecutors take action against potential defendants they want to prosecute for violations of federal laws, such as fraud, money laundering, or bank robbery.

The indictment is the document that initiates federal prosecution, lists all the charges a federal criminal defendant is facing, and is therefore one of the most important filings in any federal criminal case. The federal criminal charges faced by a defendant cannot be changed on a whip, rather a superseding indictment must be presented to a grand jury a second time and the charges cannot be altered unless that occurs. This is an important contrast from state court criminal proceedings, which typically allow prosecutors to amend charges; however, they see fit in a specific state court felony case. 

Another important and constitutional purpose of an indictment is to give notice to defendants what criminal charges they are facing and to give them an opportunity to prepare a defense against specific charges. Similar to state court criminal proceedings, in federal court the government cannot obtain a conviction, unless they can prove each element of the crimes charged in the indictment against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. 

In order to defend against specific federal criminal charges in an indictment, the defendant and their chosen federal criminal defense attorney must know what the elements of the offense are to be defended against. Preparing a defense begins with understanding each element of each offense and what evidence is necessary for the prosecution to meet its burden for each element of the offense charged in the indictment. 

Not all federal criminal cases go to trial, in fact most are settled or resolved by plea agreement. Therefore, federal defendants and their defense attorneys must assess the strength of the prosecution’s case in order to evaluating whether a plea agreement is the best option or fighting their charges in a jury trial. 

What Federal Cases are Presented to Grand Jury?

Most federal felony offenses are presented to the grand jury, as the constitutional guarantees defendants the right to be charged by indictment presented to a neutral group of citizens comprising the grand jury. Some federal felony offenses proceed by criminal information or criminal complaint; however, federal defendants must waive the right to indictment or else the case will be returned to a grand jury for consideration. 

Federal misdemeanors cases, offenses carrying a year or less, do not require an indictment or presentment to the grand jury. These offenses are generally based on the location of the offense, i.e. federal enclaves or locations that state courts lack jurisdiction, such as military instillations, reservations, national parks, or federal wildlife preserves. State court prosecutors and state courts lack the authority to prosecute alleged criminal offenses that occur at these locations. Therefore, they are prosecuted by federal prosecutors, often special U.S. Attorneys that are appointed to handle the limited number of cases in these situations and have other fulltime federal attorney positions. 

Indictments in RICO and Conspiracy Cases

The indictment in cases with many defendants, such as a conspiracy or RICO case, will include multiple acts by the complete list of included defendants or co-conspirators. The allegations must contribute to the overall offense in order for each unindicted conspirator to be charged in the indictment. In RICO cases the separate acts will form a path to the overall criminal acts being prosecuted and each individual defendant’s alleged role in the conspiracy or RICO case.

Probable Cause for Indictment

As stated above, federal prosecutors cannot simply file an Indictment charging someone with federal criminal offenses. Rather there is a necessary an neutral body in the grand jury that considers the evidence the prosecution has and determines whether someone should be indicted or not. In state court, criminal proceedings, prosecutors are tasked to determine for themselves whether probable cause exists to charge someone with a felony. Therefore, the threshold question of the probable cause is met at the time an indictment is filed and other more important barriers remain for the prosecution to obtain a conviction. 

In state court criminal proceedings the felony preliminary hearing is a discovery tool that allows criminal defense attorneys to preserve testimony under oath and cross-examine important witnesses in the case. However, this tool is not available in federal criminal defense. A related tool is the federal detention hearing, which is a preliminary determine on whether or not a federal criminal defendant must remain in pretrial detention or whether they will be granted pretrial release. Although somewhat frowned upon, the federal detention hearing is an opportunity for your federal criminal defense attorney to learn more about your case and cross-examine government witnesses, somewhat similar to state court preliminary hearings. 

Discuss Indictment with a Federal Criminal Defense Attorney

Whether you or a loved one have been indicted or an indictment is imminent, Your Fierce Advocates™ at Cannon & Associates are ready to answer your questions and address your concerns about the situation and road ahead. Federal prosecutors will not present your case to the grand jury, unless they believe they have sufficient evidence to convict you of a federal felony offense. 

The process of being indicted and the resulting federal criminal case is a complex process that can result in serious consequences, both to your freedom and your finances. Your Fierce Advocates™ at Cannon & Associates will use our experience as federal criminal defense attorneys to seek the best possible outcome for you and your family, while ensuring you understand each step of the process you are facing. 

Contact our team of Oklahoma federal criminal defense attorneys if you or someone you love has been charged by indictment in federal court. Contact Cannon & Associates for answers to your questions about your rights and your options in your federal criminal case. Complete the CONTACT FORM ON THIS PAGE NOW or CALL at 405-657-2323 for a free confidential case evaluation. 

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