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What is a Federal Indictment?

By Jennie S.
Updated May 16, 2024
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A federal indictment, also called a bill of indictment or a true bill, is the written accusation that forms the basis for a felony criminal case in a United States federal court. It is frequently the second step in federal cases, which usually begin when a prosecutor files an initial complaint, also called an "information" or "accusation."

After a complaint is filed, a federal grand jury, which is a panel of 16 to 23 ordinary citizens, secretly reviews evidence presented by the federal prosecutor, also known as the U.S. Attorney. The purpose of this review is to determine whether the case is strong enough to proceed. If a simple majority of a grand jury determines that it is strong enough, it returns a federal indictment, and the defendant faces further criminal proceedings. If the grand jury determines the prosecutor’s evidence to be insufficient, it returns "no bill," and the federal charge or charges are dismissed.

The grand jury’s indictment is prepared by the grand jury foreperson, who marks it a "true bill" and delivers it to the Federal Magistrate, or judge. After the federal indictment is issued, a warrant is prepared for the defendant’s arrest, if the defendant is not in custody already.

A federal indictment is usually brief and plainly worded, listing where, when and how the defendant allegedly committed the felony offense. Some indictments are sealed, or secret, meaning that they cannot be viewed by the public. Usually, indictments are sealed because the defendant has yet to be arrested. After an arrest the indictment may be made available to the public.

Unless the defendant waives his or her right to a jury trial or works out a plea agreement with prosecutors, cases stemming from federal indictments are tried by juries. Federal defendants may also waive their right to a grand jury proceeding and proceed with a trial or a plea agreement based only on the prosecutor’s information, or initial complaint.

Indictment by grand jury is a protection granted to defendants in federal felony cases under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment of a Grand Jury.” Despite this, fewer than half of all U.S. states use grand juries in prosecuting felony cases. This is because this right has not been incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment which would make it applicable to the states. Those states that do grant grand jury indictments to the accused do so because they have incorporated the right into their state constitutions. In those states that do not use grand juries, prosecutors file a criminal complaint. The criminal complaint is heard by a judge, who determines whether there is sufficient evidence against the accused to proceed with a trial.

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Discussion Comments

By stmary — On Feb 27, 2013

Why aren't Federal indictments issued immediately?

By anon322510 — On Feb 27, 2013

Why would I know the whereabouts of Federally indicted females, but the government doesn't pick them up?

By trullieok — On Apr 11, 2011

I had no idea that a federal indictment was so complicated! You hear about people being indicted all the time on the news and it comes across as such a simple, one step thing, but apparently not -- I hope I never have to experience it first hand!

By Sunny27 — On Jul 12, 2010

Great article- I just want to add that grand juries usually hear from F.B.I and I.R.S. agents more than traditional law enforcement officers.

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