Buffalo, NY Criminal Defense Lawyers Explain How Grand Juries Work


Buffalo, NY Criminal Defense Lawyers Explain How Grand Juries Work

Being called to testify before a grand jury can be an intimidating and confusing experience for anyone. As criminal defense lawyers in Buffalo, NY, we want to provide some clarity on how grand juries operate, and what your rights and responsibilities are if you are called to testify.

Why Do Grand Juries Exist?

The purpose of a grand jury is to act as a check on the prosecutor’s power. The prosecutor cannot bring serious criminal charges against someone without first convincing a grand jury that there is enough evidence to justify a trial[3]. This prevents the government from arbitrarily accusing people of crimes without cause.

The grand jury provides citizens outside of the criminal justice system the chance to evaluate the strength of a case before subjecting someone to an expensive public trial. Grand juries have been part of the American justice system since the founding of the country. They are guaranteed in the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution[4].

How are Grand Juries Convened?

In New York, a grand jury is convened at the request of the District Attorney’s office. Grand juries typically serve for a month at a time meeting a few days a week, though this can vary. There is no limit on the number of cases a grand jury can hear during its term[2].

Grand jurors take an oath of secrecy – they cannot discuss anything that happens during the grand jury proceedings with anyone, even their family members. This is meant to protect the privacy of anyone under investigation who has not been formally charged with a crime yet. Violating grand jury secrecy can result in being held in contempt of court[3].

What Are My 5th Amendment Rights Before a Grand Jury?

The 5th Amendment of the Constitution provides several important protections for grand jury witnesses[6]:

  • You cannot be compelled to incriminate yourself – you have the right to refuse to answer any question that you believe could implicate you in a crime.
  • Anything you do choose to testify about before the grand jury cannot be used against you in a subsequent criminal proceeding. However, perjury or obstruction of justice before the grand jury can be prosecuted.
  • If you are the target of an investigation, you have the right to refuse to testify at all.
  • You must explicitly invoke your 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to exercise it – refusing to answer questions or evading questions is insufficient.

Can I Have an Attorney With Me When I Testify?

Witnesses who are not the target of an investigation do not have the right to have an attorney present with them in the grand jury room. However, you can consult with your attorney outside the room at any time.

If you are the target of an investigation, some jurisdictions allow you to have an attorney present outside the room who you can consult with. However, anything you tell your lawyer can be accessed by prosecutors.

Defense lawyers are not permitted to cross-examine witnesses or make objections during grand jury proceedings. Our role is primarily to advise you outside the room on whether to answer questions or invoke your 5th Amendment rights.

What Happens After I Testify Before the Grand Jury?

After hearing from all the witnesses and reviewing the evidence, the grand jury will deliberate in private and vote on whether to issue an indictment. At least 12 of the 16-23 grand jurors must vote that there is probable cause to indict you for a felony charge.

If an indictment is issued, the case will move forward to an arraignment and criminal trial. If the grand jury decides not to indict, the case cannot move forward unless the prosecutor presents the case to another grand jury and obtains an indictment.

As your criminal defense lawyers, we can request a transcript of your testimony and use it to prepare your defense strategy if you are indicted. Nothing you truthfully testify about before the grand jury can be used against you at trial since you did not have counsel present.