Indictment vs. Criminal Charge: What's the Difference? Understanding the Legal Steps Leading to a Trial

by LegalFix
Posted: June 25, 2024

The legal terms "indictment" and "criminal charge" might sound interchangeable, but in the world of criminal justice, they have distinct meanings and play different roles. Understanding the difference between an indictment and a charge can be crucial, especially if you or someone you know gets caught up in the criminal justice system. Today, we’ll shed light on these concepts, explaining what each entails and the situations where they come into play.

What Is a Charge? 

A criminal charge is the first official accusation of wrongdoing, formally notifying a suspect they're being accused of a crime. This charge can be filed by law enforcement (like the police) or a prosecutor, depending on the severity of the alleged offense and the specific laws of your jurisdiction.

Charges can be for misdemeanors, which are less serious offenses punishable by jail time of less than a year, or felonies, which are more serious crimes carrying the potential for significant prison sentences. The specific details of the charge will vary according to the alleged crime, but it will typically outline the nature of the offense, the date and location it occurred, and any relevant statutes that were violated.

What Is an Indictment? 

An indictment, on the other hand, is a more formal accusation issued by a grand jury. Think of a grand jury as a citizen review board that examines evidence presented by the prosecution. They determine if there's enough reason to believe that a crime was committed and that the suspect is likely responsible. The grand jury process is confidential, meaning the proceedings are not open to the public and the evidence presented is not subject to the same scrutiny as a trial.

Here's where the key difference between indictment vs. charge lies: A charge requires a lower standard of evidence, often called "probable cause." This simply means there's enough reason to suspect the accused committed a crime to justify further investigation or arrest. 

An indictment, however, requires a higher standard of evidence known as "probable cause to believe." The grand jury weighs the evidence and votes on whether to indict. If they do, it signifies a stronger belief that the accused is likely guilty.

Do Charges Always Lead to Indictments?

Not all charges result in indictments. For minor offenses, a prosecutor might bypass the grand jury and proceed directly with a criminal complaint.

So, when does a charge typically lead to an indictment? In general, indictments are more common for serious felony cases. For complex cases with multiple suspects or intricate evidence, an indictment allows for a more thorough review before formally proceeding with charges

Indictment vs. Charge: Practical Differences

Here's a quick comparison to solidify the indictment vs. charge distinction:

  • Issuing Authority: Charges can be filed by law enforcement or a prosecutor, while indictments are issued by a grand jury. 

  • Burden of Proof: Charges require a lower standard of evidence (probable cause), and indictments require a higher standard (probable cause to believe). 

  • Secrecy: Charges are public records, but indictments can sometimes be sealed to remain confidential. 

  • Uses: Charges are common for both misdemeanors and felonies, while indictments are more typical for felonies and complex cases. 

After Charges or Indictment: What Happens Next?

Whether you face a charge or an indictment, the legal process moves forward. You'll likely be arraigned in court, where you'll be informed of the charges against you and have the opportunity to enter a plea. 

This is where legal counsel becomes crucial. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the complexities of the criminal justice system, understand your rights, and develop a strong defense strategy.

Know the Laws with LegalFix

Understanding the difference between a charge and an indictment is essential to navigating criminal procedure. If you find yourself facing criminal charges or an indictment, remember you don't have to go through it alone—and you should not go through it alone. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you at no charge, but being armed with the right knowledge ahead of time is key. Consulting with a qualified attorney is the best course of action. The earlier you demystify the legal process, the better equipped you'll be to protect your rights.

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