There is a lot of confusion around what a grand jury does, which is understandable as much of the grand jury process takes place behind closed doors. Unlike other court proceedings, which in most cases are required to be open to the public, grand juries are not open to the public. Even more shocking to most people, grand jury proceedings are also not usually open to the defendant or their attorney. In fact, in federal grand jury proceedings is not uncommon for an individual to not know an investigation is being conducted. For state crimes in Washington, grand juries are rarely used except for extremely special circumstances. As such, this post will focus primarily on federal grand juries.
Grand juries are typically convened to determine whether probable cause exists to indict an individual with a crime. It is not uncommon for a grand jury proceeding to last months and even upwards of a year, but the grand jury does not meet every day during that time period. During the hearings, a federal prosecutor presents evidence to a jury panel which is usually compromised of 16-24 people. The prosecutor has wide discretion in the types of evidence that can be presented. The rules of evidence that apply during other court proceedings do not apply during grand jury proceedings meaning the prosecutor can present whatever evidence it desire with very little limitations. In federal grand juries, the defendant and their counsel have no right to be heard before the grand jury, which further eliminates limitations on the prosecutor's presentation. At the conclusion of the prosecutor's case, the grand jury determines if the defendant should be charged with a crime.
It is very important to obtain representation immediately if a grand jury has been convened. Many individuals think that since they cannot be present at the hearings that there may be no point in obtaining an attorney. There are several important reasons this is not the case. First, at the point a grand jury has been convened the person being investigated is likely being extensively monitored. Depending on the allegations, that monitoring may include finances, phones, and video surveillance. Second, federal prosecutors are often willing to negotiate a better deal if they do not have to go through the entire grand jury process. The grand jury process is expensive, lengthy, and essentially requires the prosecutor to put on its case twice. Third, if a person is interested in resolving a federal case by a plea agreement, there can be a significant reduction in the sentencing range based on a defendant's acceptance of responsibility. The earlier a person cooperates, the better outcome they usually receive. There may be advantages to both parties in resolving a case quickly and this is best facilitated by an experienced attorney. And finally, for an individual who is going to fight the charges against them, it is critical to obtain representation early on to facilitate the best preparation of their case.
It may also be important for witnesses who in a federal investigation to be represented by counsel. Witnesses are often subpoenaed to testify before grand juries. This can put a person in an uncomfortable position of being called to testify on behalf of a family member, friend, or business associate, and yet not be allowed to inform the person who is being investigated. A person who has been called to testify before a grand jury should consult with an attorney prior to testifying. Because the normal rules of evidence do not apply to the proceedings there is very little limit on what a witness can be asked or required to disclose during the proceedings. A person may unintentionally implicate themselves or their business during grand jury testimony without realizing it.
If you are under federal investigation or have been contacted to assist with federal investigation, competent and effective legal counsel is imperative. Several of the attorneys at Stein, Lotzkar & Starr PS have experience with federal cases. Contact us today for a free consultation to see if we can assist you.