What Is A Sealed Indictment?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

If you are ever caught up in criminal proceedings, the language can be a huge hurdle in understanding what is going on. Not understanding the process often makes it seem much scarier. 

This handy little article will take you through the basics of sealed indictments – what they are, and what they may mean in criminal proceedings.

Basic Definition

A sealed indictment can seem intimidating at first, but it is merely a term for officially accusing a person of a felony crime.

A felony crime can be easily defined as any crime that carries more than a one-year prison sentence.

‘Indicted’ means that the criminal case has been heard in front of a grand jury and this jury has concluded that there is a more than a reasonable possibility that the accused did commit the crime.

This means that the case will be brought to trial.

A ‘sealed indictment’ is the same process. The only difference is that it is done essentially in secret. This secrecy is so strict that even the accused will not know that they could be potentially arrested.

Criminal Cases And Sealed Indictments

What Is A Sealed Indictment

Be aware that this article uses ‘Person X’ in the place of ‘the accused’ or similar. For ease of reading, Person X throughout this piece will refer to the person who is the subject of the sealed indictment.

Once an indictment has been issued on Person X, they are going to be arrested and charged with the crime. A sealed indictment is not disclosed to the public.

This means that it is impossible to know who is under investigation and what offenses are being investigated – this includes Person X.

At the most appropriate stage, the indictment is unsealed and a warrant for Person X’s arrest will be issued. Remember that a sealed indictment will always be unsealed at some point.

Once it is unsealed, Person X will go to trial after their now unsealed indictment has become part of the public record.

Benefits Of Sealed Indictments

One of the most frequently cited reasons for opting for a sealed indictment is that there is a significant reduction in the flight risk of Person X.

This is because they are not made aware that they are under investigation until after they are arrested. This means that there is no reason for them to flee.

In a sealed indictment, the prosecution appears before the grand jury. At this stage Person X will not be aware that they are under investigation.

Remember that this is not a trial so there is no need for Person X to defend themselves – the indictment is merely questioning the probability that Person X committed the crime. 

A grand jury may return a sealed indictment to protect identities. This could be the identities of any victims or witnesses and is done for their protection.

This procedure may also give the police or whichever law enforcement agency is investigating more time and opportunity to investigate anyone who may have helped Person X commit the crime.

Keep in mind that there is no need for a sealed indictment to be issued if Person X has already been arrested as a suspect for the crime in question.

They will therefore obviously be aware that they are under investigation and so the benefits of a sealed indictment have been lost.

Sealed Indictments And Felony Charges

A sealed indictment is only available if Person X is being investigated for a felony charge. Any indictment by a grand jury will have at least one felony crime listed in the charges. This will include a capital punishment crime.

The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution made it mandatory for any capital crime to be put before a grand jury. The Amendment means that many states use a grand jury for all felony crimes. This, however, is not universal.

Some states do not use the sealed indictment process but employ a similar system.

These states will hold a preliminary hearing where a lower court judge looks at the evidence gathered to determine if there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Person X committed the felony.

If the judge finds that there is probable cause, they can order the case to be heard before the appropriate court for a trial.

If Person X is being investigated for crimes related to drugs or sex crimes, it may be that the preliminary hearing and indictment will be sealed. This is to protect witnesses and to reduce Person X’s flight risk.

Quick Summary

A sealed indictment is ‘lawyer-talk’ for saying that someone’s criminal charges have not been made public – they are sealed away from public viewing.

At this stage, no one will know what crime was committed, what charges it will bring, or who is being accused of committing the offense.


What Is A Felony Crime?

A felony is a classification of crime that is highly serious. These crimes have a potential prison term that is longer than less serious misdemeanor offenses.

A sentence for a felony crime will generally be a year or longer.

Crimes such as murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, animal cruelty, robbery, and arson are all felony offenses.

This is not an exhaustive list and several other crimes come with long prison sentences.

What Is A Flight Risk?

‘Flight risk’ is used to describe a suspect in a crime who is likely to leave the country or area before the trial. It is also used to describe someone who will leave before their bail hearing. 

A sealed indictment means that the accused is unaware that they are under investigation so there is no reason for them to flee the region.

This makes it easier for law enforcement to arrest them and bring them to trial.

Are Sealed Indictments Always Sealed?

No, a sealed indictment will be unsealed after the suspect has been arrested but before they go to trial. This makes their charges part of the public record.

The indictment may be sealed for longer to keep witnesses protected, but almost all indictments are unsealed after six years.