An indictment is used as an alternative to a complaint filed as a formal accusation against someone that is suspected of committing a crime. Indictments are generally only obtained for felony charges. An indictment against an individual can be obtained before any arrest is made.
How Indictments are Obtained
To obtain an indictment against someone suspected of committing a crime, the District Attorney or the United States Attorney must present the case to a grand jury. A grand jury is a jury made of a group local citizens who are sworn in to serve for multiple months.
The grand jury is held "in secrecy". There is no judge involved in this proceeding, the grand jury is considered to be an arm of the District Attorney, and generally hears only from the prosecution side and not the person in question. For this reason, indictments are fairly easy for the District Attorney to obtain.
What Does the Grand Jury Do?
The grand jury reviews the evidence presented by the District Attorney to determine if he has enough probable cause to charge the individual of the crime. The District Attorney can present witnesses and the grand jury is generally allowed to ask questions directly during the proceedings. The suspect may testify at the grand jury hearing, but is not allowed to bring in his own witnesses, nor may he or his attorney question any of the prosecutor’s witnesses.
Once the grand jury reviews the District Attorney's case, they will determine whether or not the prosecutor has enough probable cause to present and prosecute in court.
If the indictment is approved, the grand jury will return a true bill, and the District Attorney will bring the indictment to court BUT this does not mean the individual has been found guilty. The indictment will specify the charges against the individual, and includes a short statement of a description of the evidence, and how, when, and where the individual was believed to have committed the crime. If the grand jury does not believe that the District Attorney has enough evidence to formally accuse and move forward to trial, they will return a no bill and the District Attorney will not be able to prosecute the case in district court unless more evidence surfaces and they repeat the process to obtain a true bill..
After an Indictment is Obtained
After the prosecution obtains an indictment against an individual, and he is now referred to as the Defendant. The District Attorney then files the case with a court, and the individual is set for arraignment. An arraignment is a hearing and the judge informs the defendant of the charges against him. The defendant then has a choice to make a plea bargain with the prosecution, or to move forward with a jury trial.