Federal Criminal Lawyers Explain How Grand Juries Work


Federal Criminal Lawyers Explain How Grand Juries Work

If you’re being investigated for a federal crime, you probably have a ton of questions about grand juries. I totally get it. The legal system can be really confusing sometimes. As a federal criminal defense attorney, I want to explain how federal grand juries work in a simple, easy-to-understand way. Here’s what you need to know:

What is a federal grand jury?

A federal grand jury is a group of 16-23 random citizens who listen to evidence presented by federal prosecutors (government lawyers) and decide if there’s enough evidence to charge someone with a federal crime[5]. They meet in secret to protect the confidentiality of the investigation.

Grand juries only look at potential felony crimes – serious crimes like fraud, drug trafficking, or violence that are punishable by over a year in prison. They don’t deal with misdemeanors.

How does a grand jury work?

Here’s the basic process:

  • Prosecutors present evidence like documents, recordings, and witness testimony.
  • The grand jury listens and then votes in private on whether there’s enough evidence to charge someone.
  • At least 12 out of 16-23 members must vote that there’s enough evidence for an indictment.
  • If they vote to indict, the grand jury issues a formal written statement accusing someone of a crime.
  • The accused person is then arrested and charged.

A grand jury doesn’t determine guilt or innocence – they just decide if there’s enough evidence to prosecute someone. The actual trial happens later in front of a petit jury (also called a trial jury).

Are grand juries really independent?

Grand juries are supposed to be independent bodies that make unbiased decisions, but in reality, they usually just agree with what prosecutors recommend.

Prosecutors basically present one side of the story and ask the grand jury to indict. Defense lawyers can’t be in the room to present the other side. So the grand jury usually only hears the prosecutor’s evidence without seeing any weaknesses or counter-arguments.

Because of this, some people argue the grand jury system is unfair and biased toward indictment[2]. Over 99% of cases brought to federal grand juries end up getting indicted.

Can you refuse to testify?

If you’re called as a witness, you must show up but can refuse to answer questions by pleading the Fifth Amendment. This protects you from having to say anything incriminating.

But keep in mind that just taking the Fifth can sometimes imply guilt in the eyes of grand jurors. It’s best to have an attorney advise you on the pros and cons first.

Should you testify voluntarily?

If you’re the target of an investigation, you can volunteer to testify before the grand jury. This gives you a chance to give your side of the story.

But it’s extremely risky because anything you say can be used against you. The prosecutors will be looking for holes or inconsistencies in your story to use later at trial.

So think very carefully before agreeing to testify. Most defense attorneys will advise targets against it because the risks usually outweigh the benefits.

Can you fight an indictment?

If you’re indicted, all hope isn’t lost. There are still ways your attorney can get the charges dismissed before trial:

  • File a motion claiming the evidence was obtained illegally.
  • Argue there were errors in the grand jury process.
  • Claim the prosecutor behaved improperly.
  • Show there’s no jurisdiction for the charges.

An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can review the case and look for ways to get an indictment thrown out before it goes to trial.


Here are some key takeaways about federal grand juries:

  • They decide whether to issue formal charges for federal felonies.
  • Prosecutors present evidence and recommend indictment.
  • Defense lawyers can’t be present so the process is very one-sided.
  • Indictment rates are extremely high – over 99% of cases presented get indicted.
  • Targets can testify voluntarily but it’s very risky.
  • An experienced attorney can sometimes get indictments dismissed before trial.

I know this is a stressful time, but don’t lose hope. Now that you understand the federal grand jury process, you can make smart decisions about how to respond. And an experienced federal criminal defense attorney can help protect your rights every step of the way.

If you have any other questions, feel free to reach out. I’m always happy to help explain this confusing stuff in simple terms!