Charging is the second stage in the federal court process following the investigation. In the charging stage, the prosecutor overseeing your case will decide if you should face criminal charges and, if so, which charges are most appropriate.
Though the prosecutor's decision will be out of your control, you should understand the importance of various charges they may levy against you. Knowledge can be empowering during a federal criminal court proceeding, and the information presented here may reduce your uncertainty about the proceedings ahead.
How a Prosecutor May Decide Whether to Charge You or Not
By the time a prosecutor decides whether to pursue federal criminal charges against you, law enforcement agencies will have exhausted their investigative resources. Perhaps the investigating agency can no longer justify warrant applications, feels that it has enough evidence to justify an indictment, or has simply stopped gathering useful evidence.
Whatever the reason for concluding the investigation, the prosecutor must now make critical decisions about your case. The prosecutor has two general options when presented with your case:
- To present your case to a grand jury: After reviewing the evidence and hearing testimony, the grand jury will decide whether to indict you or not
- Not to present your case to a grand jury: In this case, the prosecutor may feel that there is insufficient evidence to pursue an indictment and could return your case to the investigative stage
If a prosecutor chooses not to pursue an indictment, investigators may continue the investigation into your conduct. The case may instead become dormant, or federal investigators may abandon the case temporarily or permanently.
If the prosecutor trying your case in Pennsylvania's Eastern or Middle District courts presents your case to a grand jury, then the grand jury will have the power to determine your case's fate.
Are Grand Jury Indictments Required to Try Federal Cases in Pennsylvania?
For federal felony crimes, the prosecutor must obtain a grand jury indictment to charge you. Considering that federal investigators generally do not use their resources to investigate and prosecute misdemeanor offenses (though they can), it is likely that a prosecutor will need a grand jury indictment in order to charge you with a federal offense.
How a Grand Jury Decides Whether to Indict You (or Not)
The grand jury process is similar to a trial in some respects. During grand jury proceedings, the prosecutor generally:
- Presents evidence that favors their pursuit of an indictment
- Presents and questions witnesses
- Make an oral case detailing the alleged offenses and why the prosecutor believes that an indictment is justified
In determining whether or not to indict you, the grand jury must answer one question: Is there probable cause to believe that you may have committed a federal offense?
If the grand jury does not find sufficient evidence to indict you, it will return a “no-bill,” per the U.S. Department of Justice's Justice Manual (JM) § 9-11.101.
Does a Prosecutor Have to Present Exculpatory Evidence During Grand Jury Proceedings?
According to JM § 9-11.233, a prosecutor must disclose to a grand jury any “substantial” evidence that suggests you're not guilty of an alleged offense:
It is the policy of the Department of Justice, however, that when a prosecutor conducting a grand jury inquiry is personally aware of substantial evidence that directly negates the guilt of a subject of the investigation, the prosecutor must present or otherwise disclose such evidence to the grand jury before seeking an indictment against such a person.
The phrase “substantial evidence” leaves some room for interpretation. A prosecutor may claim that certain evidence is not “substantial” enough that they would have to disclose it to the grand jury. The prosecutor could also argue that such evidence does not “directly negate” your guilt, which would allow them to exclude the evidence from grand jury proceedings.
The same statute explains that failure to disclose exculpatory evidence is not grounds to dismiss an indictment. Therefore, prosecutors may choose not to disclose certain evidence that is unfavorable to their case. Such a decision could, though it does not always qualify as misconduct.
If a prosecutor engages in misconduct during the charging stage, attorney Joseph Lento may file a complaint with the Office of Professional Responsibility. Even so, your case will likely proceed once an indictment comes into effect.
Can My Attorney Make My Case in Front of a Federal Grand Jury?
Representation is a key difference between grand jury proceedings and a trial. While you have the right to have an attorney defend you at trial, the case a prosecutor makes to a grand jury is decidedly more one-sided.
Your attorney will not be present to represent you during grand jury proceedings. Their role will become prominent once you receive notice of charges, however.
Keep in mind that, at the time that a prosecutor is seeking an indictment, you won't even be aware of grand jury proceedings. You likely will not have received any notice of an investigation into your conduct, let alone notice of formal charges. Therefore, you may not have even retained an attorney when grand jury proceedings take place.
Grand jury proceedings are secretive by nature. Records of these proceedings are sealed (and difficult to unseal). By the time you receive notice of federal charges against you, your attorney may be most concerned with your trial defense rather than unsealing grand jury records.
Hire an Attorney as Soon as You Receive Notice of an Indictment in Pennsylvania's Eastern or Middle District
A grand jury's recommendation to indict you represents a significant step in the legal process. The investigation is complete, the prosecutor has organized their case, and a grand jury has given the green light to formally charge you.
It is critical that you hire a defense attorney as soon as possible. Attorney Joseph D. Lento handles federal cases in the Eastern and Middle Districts of Pennsylvania. We understand how prosecutors and judges in these federal districts operate, and we'll provide the defense that you deserve.
We handle all federal case types, from drug offenses to white-collar crimes and other offenses handled at the federal level. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or contact us online about your federal case.