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Grand Jury - Grand Jury Screening

indictment prosecutor information prosecutions

Federal prosecutions. The Fifth Amendment provides that except in certain military cases, "no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury." The reference to "otherwise infamous crimes," has been interpreted, in light of historical practice, as encompassing all felonies (offenses punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year). Thus, the net effect of the Fifth Amendment provision is to establish grand jury screening as the constitutional right of any person charged in a federal court with a felony offense. Since the provision is designed to protect the interests of the defendant, it does not require grand jury review when the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waives the use of an indictment. In such cases, and in prosecutions for misdemeanors, the federal prosecutor ordinarily will proceed by information.

State prosecutions. Only eighteen states continue to make a grand jury indictment mandatory for all felony prosecutions (absent a voluntary waiver). Most do not allow waiver for capital offenses, so such prosecutions always are brought by indictment. Four additional states require prosecution by indictment for capital offenses or both capital and life-imprisonment offenses, but not for other felonies.

The remaining twenty-eight states permit prosecution by information for all felonies. These states grant the prosecutor the option of proceeding by indictment, but in several states that option is entirely theoretical, as grand juries do not exist. In most of the states permitting the information option, convening a grand jury is a realistic option, but one that is rarely used. Prosecutors proceed by indictment rather than information only where they have a special reason for doing so (e.g., the case was originally brought to the grand jury because the prosecutor had need for its investigative authority, the prosecutor desires to avoid the preliminary hearing that would be required if the prosecutor proceeded by information, or the case is politically sensitive and the prosecutor seeks to share responsibility for the charging decision with the grand jury). However, an occasional prosecutor in a state permitting prosecution by information may have a general preference for proceeding through the grand jury and bring most felony charges by indictment.

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