Are Grand Jury Indictments Are Rubber Stamps?

Grand jury proceedings are a mystical thing. They are secret. The grand jurors go in, the prosecutor goes in, witnesses go in, then the prosecutor comes out with an indictment and the beginning of his charges against a person, people, or corporation.

Hence the phrase, “a prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich.”

The standard for a grand jury to indict a person is “whether probable cause exists to support the charges,” or whether enough evidence exists to support the charges. This is a very low standard of evidence.

Grand jury indictments are supposed to be the check on an individual’s discretion on when to charge a crime. They were intended to take the place of one or two people controlling the initial steps of the criminal justice process.


In Colorado, most indictments never happen, and felonies are charged by police and prosecutors, and a judge determines whether probable cause exists after hearing evidence in a preliminary hearing. This preliminary hearing is an evidentiary hearing where the government must call witnesses to testify to the evidence that can support probable cause for the charges.

In the federal criminal justice system, prosecutors must still indict a defendant to charge them. The U.S. government prosecutors try not to waste time and resources by waiting to file charges until they have amassed so much evidence against a person that the indictment is tantamount to a trial where they try to present near insurmountable evidence against a person to ensure the case does not go to trial – their effort to further judicial economy.

However, what happens when a grand juror does not follow along with what the government wants? In Arizona last year, a “runaway grand jury” turned its sites on the prosecutor’s office. Another runaway grand jury in Texas indicted a Supreme Court justice.

The key towards keeping a grand jury process legitimate is to present facts and ask for the grand jury to return a “true bill” on the indictment without preaching, without arguing for a case. That way, once presented in an argument-neutral way, the later courts and juries to hear indicted cases get their cases pre-screened, the true function of a grand jury.


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