What is a True Bill of Indictment?

by LegalFix
Posted: May 15, 2024
indictment, information, and complaint

The American justice system is built on a foundation of checks and balances. One such safeguard is the grand jury, a group of citizens who play a critical role in the pre-trial process for criminal procedure. The grand jury has the power to decide whether a case merits a "true bill" of indictment, and understanding this concept is essential to grasp how our justice system functions. Today, we’ll delve into the world of indictments and explain what a true bill of indictment signifies, its consequences, and why legal representation is crucial at this stage.

From Arrest to Trial: A Look at the Pre-Trial Process

Being arrested can be a frightening experience. However, an arrest doesn't automatically translate to a criminal trial. The pre-trial process involves a series of steps designed to ensure fairness and gather evidence. These steps typically include:

  1. Arrest: Law enforcement takes a suspect into custody, believing they have probable cause for a crime.

  2. Booking: The suspect's identity and charges are recorded, and they may be fingerprinted and photographed.

  3. Initial Appearance: The suspect is brought before a judge to be informed of their rights and the charges against them. This is where bail may be set.

  4. Preliminary Hearing (Optional): In some jurisdictions, a judge may hold a hearing to determine if there's enough evidence to proceed with the case.

  5. Grand Jury Review (Optional): Depending on the jurisdiction and severity of the charges, a grand jury may consider the case. The grand jury plays a pivotal role in determining whether formal charges, known as an indictment, will be filed.

The Grand Jury: Gatekeepers of the Criminal Justice System

A grand jury is a group of citizens, typically between 12 and 23 people, selected from the community. Their primary function is to review evidence presented by the prosecutor and decide whether there's probable cause to believe a crime was committed.

The grand jury process is shrouded in secrecy. Prosecutors present their case, which may include witness testimony and physical evidence, without the defendant or their attorney present. The grand jury deliberates in private and votes on whether to issue a true bill.

Unveiling the "True Bill": A Formal Accusation

So, what is a true bill of indictment? A true bill signifies that a majority of the grand jury (typically around two-thirds) believes there's probable cause to formally charge the suspect with a crime. This essentially greenlights the case to proceed towards a trial.

The voting process within the grand jury is confidential. However, a true bill is a significant hurdle for the defense to overcome. It indicates that the prosecutor has presented enough evidence to convince a group of impartial citizens that a crime likely occurred.

In contrast, if the grand jury doesn't find sufficient evidence, they may issue a "no true bill—also known as a ‘no bill’ or ‘not a true bill.’ This outcome results in the dismissal of the charges, at least from that specific grand jury. Prosecutors may still pursue the case by presenting evidence to a new grand jury or seeking an indictment directly from a judge.

What Happens After a True Bill of Indictment?

A true bill is a critical turning point in the pre-trial process. Here's what typically happens next:

  • Arraignment: The defendant is formally presented with the charges in open court and enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

  • Discovery: Both sides exchange information and evidence they intend to present at trial.

Other Pre-Trial Procedures 

Depending on the circumstances of the case, the pre-trial process can involve additional steps beyond a true bill. Here are two common examples:

  • Pre-Trial Motions: Defense attorneys may file motions to suppress evidence obtained illegally or challenge the sufficiency of the indictment. A successful motion could result in the dismissal of charges or the exclusion of certain evidence at trial.

  • Plea Bargaining: This is a negotiation process where the prosecutor may offer a reduced charge or sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Plea bargaining can save time and resources for both sides, and it allows the defendant to avoid the uncertainty of a trial.

If no plea bargain is reached, the case proceeds to trial, where a jury or judge will determine guilt or innocence.

Protecting Your Rights: The Importance of Legal Counsel

Facing criminal charges can be overwhelming. An experienced criminal defense attorney can be your strongest ally throughout this challenging process. They can explain the charges you face and potential consequences, ensure your rights are protected, conduct their own investigation to potentially weaken the prosecution's case, negotiate plea bargains for a more favorable outcome, and develop a strong defense strategy if your case goes to trial. 

Know Your Rights with LegalFix

The concept of a true bill of indictment is a cornerstone of the American justice system. It acts as a filter, ensuring only cases with probable cause move forward towards a formal trial. Understanding what a true bill signifies and the subsequent pre-trial process empowers you to navigate this critical phase effectively.

If you find yourself facing criminal charges, remember that you don't have to go through this alone. Whether you want to know more about a true bill of indictment or just want a better understanding of how our legal system works, LegalFix is your go-to source for free legal information. You can find helpful articles and state-specific explanations of nearly 1,600 legal topics—and browse the state and federal statutes to better understand the laws that affect you. Just visit to find all this content—and check back often for more valuable legal products and services coming soon.