Staying on the right side of the law is an essential part of maintaining an honest, decent life, and ensuring that you remain free and happy.
Finding yourself accused of a crime can be frightening, but it is important to have all of the facts and information at your fingertips to allow you to make a smart, informed decision when moving forward.
Checking to see if you have an indictment against you is an important first stage in this, but knowing how to go about this can be difficult if you are not well versed in the legal system.
If you have found yourself at the wrong end of an accusation and are unsure about the best way to proceed, read on for everything you need to know.
What Is An Indictment?
Before we take a closer look at the best way to check whether you have an indictment, it is important to understand just what we mean by this.
In the simplest terms, an indictment is used to refer to a formal accusation that an individual has committed a serious crime, and this is based upon the evidence that is available. If there is sufficient evidence that proves that a crime was committed by an individual, then they will be indicted.
Indictments are quite commonly used, but they are not required every single time – at the federal level, an indictment will only be required for a felony that is going to be heard in a federal court.
No state is legally required to indict every single individual who they believe has violated the law, but most states, including New York, Texas, Massachusetts, and Ohio, now have a law that states that an indictment is required to charge someone accused of a federal crime.
It should also be noted that an indictment can occur at a range of stages during the trial process – this does not necessarily have to take place at the beginning.
In some jurisdictions, an indictment will be pursued before someone is placed under arrest, while others will arrest the individual, and then the case will be sent out for an indictment. In the majority of cases, an indictment will not come as a surprise, as the individual in question will already be aware that the police are interested in them.
Who Makes The Decision To Indict?
In the majority of cases, a grand jury called by the prosecutor has the job of deciding whether there is enough evidence present to charge someone with a serious offense.
The grand jury may be selected in one of a number of ways, depending on the jurisdiction that the case is taking place in.
In some jurisdictions, the selection of the grand jury occurs through invitation – in other words, you have to know someone in order to sit on a grand jury. In other jurisdictions, the selection is totally random, just like a classic jury.
In this case, all potential jurors will have to undergo an interview in order to ensure that they have the capacity to serve and that they are not biased in any way.
Does An Indictment Mean I Am Guilty?
It is important to note that whether you have already been indicted, or if you are facing indictment, this doesn’t automatically mean that you are guilty of the crime you are being accused of.
An indictment means that the jury has found probable cause to charge you with a crime – and not that you have already been found guilty.
Probable cause depends largely on the standard of evidence – before you can be convicted of any offense, the jury must be convinced by the state that you committed a crime – and this must be beyond a reasonable doubt.
Essentially, in order for you to be found guilty, there must be an above 99% chance that you have committed the crime in question. For probable cause – and the issuing of an indictment – there must be a reasonable cause for you to be charged with a crime, based on the evidence.
What Happens After I Am Indicted?
Many people are worried that they will be required to stay in jail following an indictment, but things are not typically this black and white. The decision as to whether you will need to remain in jail following an indictment will be made at the bond hearing, and this occurs early in the trial process.
A bond hearing allows both the prosecutor and the defence team to argue about whether the individual should be considered for release on bond and, if this is granted, how much it should be set at.
The focus of the prosecution will be on making bail harder to achieve, while the defence team will argue for the temporary release of the defendant.
Ultimately, the decision lies with the judge, who will consider whether or not there is any risk to the community if the defendant is released, as well as the risk of the defendant running if they are released.
If they are wealthy enough to skip the country, or have a history of failing to appear for hearings, then the chances of being granted bail are slim, and the defendant will likely have to remain in jail.
Defendants who are considered to be very dangerous are unlikely to be released prior to trial; alternatively, they may be granted bail at a rate that is so high, paying it would be impossible.
Once you have been indicted, a trial will occur, and this is a process that involves a number of steps and requirements. There will be a series of pre-trial hearings, and getting to the main trial can be a lengthy process that takes several months, if not years.
In some cases, your defence lawyer may be able to work out a plea deal – this is more likely if the prosecutor is happy to work with you to resolve the issue.
With a plea deal, you will plead no contest or guilty to the charges against you, and you will then be given a punishment that is less than that which would have been awarded had you been convicted at trial.
If a plea deal is on the table from the prosecution, your lawyer will bring this to you, and the decision to accept is ultimately yours.
If you are convicted of the crime or found guilty at trial, you will have the right to appeal, and this can result in the case being re-examined, new evidence being introduced and, in some cases, your conviction being overturned.
How Can I Find Out If I Have An Indictment?
In the majority of cases, an indictment should not come as a surprise – the chances are high that you will already be aware of the police’s interest in you, and your role in the investigation.
If this is not the case, however, you should be aware that all records and notices of indictments are public records, and this means that state and federal Freedom of Information Laws mean that anyone can look them up.
Records can be accessed online, or at a federal or county courthouse, and will be available after the prosecutor has presented the adequate evidence to the grand jury.
The grand jury will then ascertain whether charges should be brought against the defendant and the nature of these charges, and you will usually then be arrested.
Indictment records are found in a number of locations, including:
County Court Records
All county courthouses will have a list of indictments, and these will typically date back several months. The indictments will include the name and charges of the offense, as well as a statement from the district attorney’s office, which certifies the indictment.
You should ask your attorney to check these records – unless you are planning on turning yourself in – as the attorney-client privilege means that they are not legally obligated to disclose any information about your whereabouts to the court.
Federal Court Records
Federal courthouses will also have copies of indictment records, usually in the clerk’s office, and records can be checked by the party of suspect names.
In some cases, the judge may rule that the indictment is to remain sealed and secure until the summons is issued, or the suspect is arrested. In this case, any sealed indictments are not public records, and not accessible by your attorney.
Your lawyer should, however, be able to advise you on the likelihood of a sealed indictment.
There are a number of specific websites that can also be used to access court records outside your current location- in some cases, an indictment may have been issued in another state, county, or by a different district court.
The Public Access to Court Electronic Records, also known as the PACER website, is maintained by the federal judiciary and can be accessed by the public. This website contains records from every US district bankruptcy and criminal court in the country.
The National Centre for State Courts also contained information on state court system sites. It is important to remember that you will need to get a friend to register for the sites before you conduct your search, or you may accidentally disclose your location.
Finding yourself at the wrong end of an indictment can be a very scary experience, as you are ultimately being closely looked at for a serious crime that you may not be responsible for.
It is important to remember, however, that an indictment is not a conviction or guilty verdict – it merely means that there is enough evidence to charge you.
The most important step is to ensure that you have a skilled, qualified, and experienced attorney on hand to help you fight the indictment, advocate for your rights, and maximize your chances of success.