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What Is a Secret Indictment?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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In the U.S. legal system, a secret indictment plays a critical role in maintaining the integrity of ongoing investigations. According to the United States Courts, grand juries, which are unique to the American justice system, are responsible for reviewing evidence and determining whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed (uscourts.gov). 

When they conclude that the evidence is sufficient, they issue a secret indictment, a concealed formal charge that remains undisclosed until the accused is apprehended or informed, safeguarding both the legal process and potential witnesses. This covert action, which the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports as a tool in various high-profile cases (bjs.gov), ensures that suspects do not flee or tamper with evidence before trial proceedings commence. This article will help you further understand the working of the U.S. legal system and answer the question, “What is a secret indictment?”

Sometimes, it is determined that the indictment should be kept secret. This may also be known as a sealed indictment or silent indictment. In this case, the documentation surrounding the indictment is kept under seal, and no one involved may discuss the indictment outside of the grand jury hearings, or with anyone else once the hearings are over. When the seal is lifted, the contents of the indictment can be made public.

Prosecutors may request a secret indictment if they are concerned that someone may flee if he or she becomes aware that trial proceedings are being set in motion. It is also possible to ask for one to protect witnesses and other people involved with the case. If a suspected criminal is aware that grand jury hearings are occurring, the criminal may take steps to interfere with the hearings, such as intimidating witnesses or members of the grand jury. By sealing the indictment, the prosecutor ensures that the process will be safe for everyone.

Secret indictments are perfectly legal. They do not infringe upon the rights of the accused, including the right to a trial by jury and the right to hear evidence and cross-examine witnesses. Some people criticize the process because they argue that it is abused and that the information should be on the public record, but the justifications for the process often far outweigh these concerns.

The indictment will be unsealed when the government feels that it is appropriate to do so. As long as someone remains at large, the indictment typically remains sealed because the case is considered active. People who have evaded arrest must usually surrender to law enforcement before they can determine the contents of an indictment, and it is advisable for individuals to surrender with the assistance of a lawyer.

FAQ on Secret Indictment

What is a secret indictment?

A secret indictment, also known as a sealed indictment, is a formal accusation of a crime that is kept confidential until it is unsealed. This typically occurs when a grand jury, which operates in private, issues an indictment but the court keeps it secret to avoid alerting the suspect, who might flee or destroy evidence. The secrecy ensures that law enforcement can investigate further or arrest the suspect without hindrance.

Why would a court use a secret indictment?

Courts use secret indictments for several strategic reasons. Primarily, they help prevent the suspect from fleeing or tampering with evidence. They are also used to protect the safety of witnesses or victims, maintain the confidentiality of an ongoing investigation, and prevent the disclosure of sensitive information. Additionally, they can be used to coordinate the arrests of multiple defendants simultaneously.

How long can an indictment remain secret?

The duration for which an indictment can remain secret varies depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of the case. There is no set time limit; it can remain sealed until the court decides to unseal it, which might happen when the suspect is arrested or when the court deems it appropriate for other strategic legal reasons. In some cases, this could be a matter of days, while in others, it could extend to years.

Can a person be tried without knowing the charges in a secret indictment?

No, a person cannot be tried without knowing the charges against them. Once a person is arrested or summoned to court, the indictment must be unsealed, and the defendant has the right to be informed of the charges. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a public trial and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation.

Are secret indictments common, and how often are they used?

Secret indictments are not the norm but are used when circumstances warrant additional confidentiality and strategic advantage for law enforcement. The frequency of their use is not commonly reported with specific statistics, as this could compromise the purpose of maintaining secrecy. However, they are a recognized legal tool within the justice system and are employed as needed across various jurisdictions.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon328050 — On Apr 01, 2013

I would still like to know how long an indictment can be held over your head on an illegal search warrant? How can you be imprisoned in a state when the evidence is seized in an illegal search warrant in the state where there are no charges against you and you were entrapped by the state where you are in jail. The two states worked together to trap you. You are in jail in the state using the illegal evidence. How do I get my son out of jail? He has health problems that could kill him and has been denied his medicine.

By anon327697 — On Mar 29, 2013

I just got out of jail for a false arrest by a planned secret indictment and I must say I am going to press charges on the state.

By anon178492 — On May 21, 2011

A family member was just arrested on a "secret indictment" and released after court the next day on $10,000/O.R. bond. What the heck? He is charged with possession of Meth and possession of drug tools for a digital scale.

I am confused and thinking it is overkill for this particular process to be used. He is not a manufacturer of the drug, but knows many who are and "he says" he took the fall when it wasn't his stuff to begin with. Whatever his story, it was a half gram they were caught with. Still seems like overkill to me.

By Fiorite — On Dec 13, 2010

@ Cougars- The effectiveness of a grand jury as a check to the judicial system is debatable. Take for example the Madoff fraud case. Madoff had been embezzling money from investors for almost thirty years, right under the nose of the government and regulators. The grand jury that passed an indictment on Madoff failed to see any criminal negligence or corruption connection between the scandal and federal regulators. How something so obvious can stay under the radar so long is amazing. I also think it is insane how banks like JP Morgan Chase benefited by almost a half billion dollars through the Madoff scandal, yet hold no responsibility for the blame.

By cougars — On Dec 11, 2010

@ Comparables- A grand jury indictment can be handed down in any level of the court system, but Grand juries are only required at the federal level. A federal grand jury is required to issue indictments on capital crimes and crime of infamy. It is a part of the judicial system of checks and balances because the grand jury is independent from the state and country's prosecution arm. It is designed to ensure that citizens are not unjustly tried in the courts. In some cases, the grand jury can actually "run away" from the prosecution and actually expose government and judicial corruption. This has not happened recently, but it has happened during prominent organized crime cases.

By Comparables — On Dec 10, 2010

I do not really understand how grand jury indictments work. Is a grand jury indictment used in federal cases, state cases, or both? I looked up the indictment definition in the dictionary, but it was of little help. I am just curious to know what is involved in handing down an indictment. Does anyone else know?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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