Most people have heard of a grand jury, but not many people understand exactly what it is or how it works. If you’re under investigation for a crime or have been indicted, it’s important to understand what role a grand jury plays in the criminal process in New Jersey.
New Jersey criminal defense attorney Lauren Wimmer represents people facing charges at every step of the criminal justice system. Call us at 215-712-1212 or visit us online to schedule a free consultation and discuss how we can help you.
It may be helpful to first explain the basics of grand juries and what it is they do. Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury does not decide the outcome of your case. Instead, a grand jury decides whether or not there is sufficient evidence to support charging you with a crime. In other words, a grand jury does not decide whether you are guilty or innocent.
Each county has a grand jury comprised of 23 people chosen at random who are citizens, over 18 years old, and fluent in English. There must be at least one grand jury sitting at all times in every county in New Jersey. When a prosecutor wants to file criminal charges, they must go to the grand jury in order to obtain an indictment. However, this is only required for crimes that are “indictable offenses,” known as felonies in other states. Misdemeanor offenses, referred to as disorderly persons charges in New Jersey, do not require a grand jury indictment, and therefore the prosecutor does not need to present their case to a grand jury.
The ultimate objective is to obtain an indictment so that the prosecutor can proceed with criminal charges. The prosecutor presents whatever evidence they believe is sufficient to support the charge or charges. By majority vote, the grand jury then decides to issue what is referred to as a “bill of indictment” if they feel that the evidence is sufficient. Lawyers refer to it as a “no bill” when the grand jury finds that the evidence is insufficient.
The principal difference between a trial jury (also known as a petit jury) and a grand jury is that neither the defendant or their attorney appears before the grand jury. This means that the grand jury does not hear your side of the case.
In addition, the prosecutor can be selective with what evidence they choose to present. They do not have to present any evidence that may suggest you are innocent. They also do not have to provide all of the evidence they have, and they do not have to tell the grand jury what evidence they don’t have or what they can’t prove.
As a result, the grand jury process heavily favors the prosecution. Some people feel that it is a mere formality that does very little to protect defendants’ rights. The grand jury process is also secret, with the grand jury members taking an oath of secrecy. As a result, the process is not transparent, and it’s difficult to know whether there is anything that can be done differently. That said, it is perhaps better than allowing prosecutors a completely free hand to file criminal charges whenever they choose.
Being indicted for a crime is certainly intimidating, but it’s important to keep perspective. As you can see from the discussion above, the prosecutor has presented an extremely one-sided version of your case in order to obtain the indictment. Once the charges are filed, it’s your turn to fight back.
If you’re under indictment, you have rights. For example -
Together, these rights protect you from unfair prosecution tactics designed to get a quick conviction or intimidate you into pleading guilty, incriminating yourself, or accepting an unfair plea agreement. That said, the process is extremely difficult for non-lawyers to navigate. An experienced criminal defense attorney can level the playing field and ensure that your rights are protected.
If you’re under investigation for a crime, contacting a criminal defense attorney before you are indicted has several advantages. It's possible that your attorney will have a professional, working relationship with the prosecutor. As a result, they may be able to persuade the prosecutor to not proceed with the indictment, or at least limit the charges they are pursuing.
Second, it gives your attorney more time to prepare and collect evidence in your favor. Once the charges are filed, things move very quickly. The extra time can prove critical for putting on the best defense possible.
Lastly, your attorney can minimize any inconvenience or embarrassment if you are indicted. For example, they can make arrangements for you to turn yourself in, minimize any time in police custody, and ensure that your rights aren’t violated.
A grand jury indictment doesn’t have to be a conviction, but don’t leave your future in the hands of the prosecution. You need someone to fight for your rights and make sure you get a fair result. From the very first meeting, we work with our clients to make sure they understand their options so they can make informed decisions. We provide passionate, dedicated advocacy and build an aggressive defense. We plan for trial and recommend plea agreements only if we think it is your very best option. If you’re facing a grand jury indictment, contact us by calling 215-712-1212 to schedule a free consultation and discuss how we can help you.