When a person is charged with a crime in New Jersey, there is a certain process that needs to be followed before the case goes to trial. A criminal complaint is sent to the county prosecutor’s office, and the prosecutor then decides whether to move forward with the charges. For most serious crimes charged at the state or county level, and for all federal crimes, the defendant must first be indicted by a grand jury. The rules and procedures for grand juries in NJ are different from those in other states. So, what exactly is a grand jury? And how does an indictment happen? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about facing an indictment in New Jersey. If you have been charged with an indictable crime such as aggravated assault, drug distribution, terroristic threats, maintaining a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) production facility, or unlawful possession of a weapon, call (848) 238-2100 now to speak with one of our criminal defense lawyers in Ocean County NJ. Our attorneys are here to provide you with a free consultation dedicated to the facts of your case so please do not hesitate to contact us today.
How Does an Indictment Happen in NJ?
Indictments are issued by grand juries that sit in the superior court located in the county where the defendant allegedly committed the criminal offense. Each of the 21 counties in New Jersey has a grand jury empaneled at all times in the county’s superior court. A grand jury is made up of 23 people who have been selected for jury duty. The requirements to be a grand juror are the same as the requirements to be a petit or trial juror. The juror must be a U.S. citizen over the age of 18 and without any prior felony convictions. The grand jury will sit for weeks or even months and hear evidence in many different criminal cases. One thing that all of these cases have in common is that the charges must be classified as indictable offenses, which refer to felonies. Lesser offenses, also known as disorderly persons offenses or misdemeanors, are heard in the local municipal court and do not require a grand jury indictment before proceeding to trial.
Does Being Indicted Mean You Are Convicted?
It is important to understand that a grand jury proceeding is not the same as an actual trial. A grand jury does not determine whether the defendant is guilty or innocent of the charges and then render a verdict in the case. Rather, a grand jury simply decides whether there is enough evidence for the case to move forward to the next step in the criminal justice process and proceed to trial. This is what happens when the grand jury decides that there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the crime; the grand jury issues a “true bill.” At least 12 of the 23 members of the grand jury – or more than half – must concur in returning a true bill of indictment. If the grand jury decides against indictment and issues a “no bill,” however, then the charges do not move forward. The county prosecutor may decide to bring different charges, reduce the charges to a lesser offense and send the case back to the local municipal prosecutor, or drop the charges entirely.
While grand juries typically opt to issue either a true bill indictment or a no bill, it is also possible for the grand jury to decide something in between. For instance, there could be multiple counts and the grand jury may decide to indict the defendant on one charge but not on another charge. They have to find that there is sufficient evidence to support prosecution of the defendant on each count included in the indictment.
What Crimes Can You Be Charged With for an Indictment in Toms River, New Jersey?
Some common examples of criminal charges that can lead to an indictment in New Jersey include the following:
- Aggravated Assault
- Aggravated Sexual Assault
- Terroristic Threats
- Unlawful Possession of a Weapon
- Drug Distribution
All of these charges are considered indictable offenses because they are either first degree, second degree, third degree, or fourth degree charges. At a minimum, a fourth degree felony conviction carries a possible penalty of incarceration in state prison for up to 18 months, while a conviction for first degree murder could lead to life imprisonment.
What is Required for an Indictment in NJ?
One limitation on the prosecution is that they must bring a felony-level case before a grand jury within 90 days of filing the charges against the defendant. Once 90 days have gone by, the charges must be dropped. In addition, the defendant is not allowed to argue in their defense at a grand jury proceeding. In fact, the defendant has no right to even appear at the proceeding, nor does their attorney. That’s what makes it so difficult for the defendant in a criminal case and relatively easy for the prosecutor to secure an indictment. Neither the defendant nor their lawyer will be able to object in advance to the evidence shown to the grand jury. Moreover, since grand jury proceedings must remain secret, the defendant won’t even know what evidence is being presented by the prosecutor.
During the grand jury proceeding, the state typically relies on evidence that includes police reports, victim interviews, and witness interviews, as well as physical evidence to establish probable cause for an indictment. Although the defendant can’t contest this evidence at the grand jury proceeding, it may still be possible to contest the grand jury’s finding after the fact by filing a motion to dismiss the true bill indictment.
Plea Agreements to Avoid Presentation of Your Case to a Grand Jury
One way to avoid a grand jury indictment in the first place is to reach a plea agreement with the prosecution during the Pre-Indictment Conference. Depending on the facts and circumstances of your case, it might be possible for your attorney to get your charges downgraded to a less serious offense or dismissed entirely. Similarly, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to help you reach a plea deal with the prosecutor that allows you to be sentenced to a lesser punishment than you may be subjected to if your case headed all the way through to trial and your were found guilty. Before an indictment happens, it may also be possible for you to enter a diversion program such as Pretrial Intervention (PTI) or Drug Court so that the criminal charges are eventually dismissed. You have to complete these programs to achieve a dismissal and PTI requires that you have no prior criminal record, but both of these options may be viable ways to keep your case from moving forward on the indictment track.
Consult Indictment Defense Lawyers in Ocean County Free of Charge
There are pros and cons to accepting a plea agreement before the grand jury makes a decision about whether to indict. And you may have more options than you realized both before and after an indictment happens. Getting legal counsel from an experienced criminal defense attorney should be top on your list of things to do when seeking to mount the most effective defense against indictable criminal allegations. A knowledgeable lawyer can take a close look at your case and help you make an informed decision that preserves your legal rights and protects your best interests. Contact our local criminal law office in Ocean County to discuss your potential indictment and what we can do to help. A free consultation is available to you by calling (848) 238-2100 now.