What is a Grand Jury?

Basically, a grand jury’s function is to control the start of prosecutions for felony cases. In 1215, the grand jury was established to keep a tight reign on the king, preventing the possible despotic abuse of his powers against the citizens.

Each state has its own laws, rules, and regulations regarding court systems. However, the goal and end results are the same…to provide a fair trial to the accused. For the purpose of this article, though, we’re speaking of Grand Juries in the Commonwealth of Virgina, simply because that’s familiar to me. However, the process is basically the same in the areas/states using the Grand Jury system.

In Virginia, criminal court proceeding normally begin with an arrest, usually by warrant, which is a formal, written accusation stating that the person named has committed a crime.

– Crimes are divided into two classes—misdemeanors and felonies. A misdemeanor is punishable by a sentence of up to 12 months in jail and/or a monetary fine. Felonies, the more serious of the two crime classifications, are punishable by confinement in the state penitentiary (remember, we’re only talking about state and local courts, not federal offenses).

– Offenders arrested for misdemeanor offenses are brought to trial in District Court (lower court), where he/she is tried before the district judge. There is no jury in District Court. The district judge hears the case and makes one of two decisions—not guilty, which results in dismissal of charges, or guilty, which results in imposition of sentence.

A District Court judge has no authority to try felony cases, only misdemeanors and traffic cases.

If the accused is charged with a felony offense, he makes his first court appearance in the lower court where a district judge conducts a preliminary/probable cause hearing to determine whether or not enough evidence exists to try the case.

Both the prosecutor and defense present evidence during preliminary hearings. Keep in mind, though, these hearings are not trials, therefore not all evidence is presented, nor are all witnesses or experts called on to testify.

If the district/lower court judge finds that a felony has been committed, along the necessary evidence to back it up, then he/she sends the case to Circuit Court (high court) for trial. Sending a case to the higher court is called “certifying” the case (Judge I. R. Mean certified the case against Ima Crook).

– Once a case has been certified it goes to the Regular Grand Jury, whose duty is to once again determine whether or not there is probable cause to believe the person has indeed committed a felony. The defendant may or may not be released on bail while waiting for the Circuit Court trial to begin.

After a case has been certified to the Circuit Court (the high court), the prosecutor (Commonwealth’s Attorney in Va.) prepares a “bill of indictment,” which is a formal document accusing the defendant of the felony.

Prosecutors may elect to bypass the lower court entirely by bringing the case/bill of indictment straight to the Grand Jury. This step can be done in secret to avoid “tipping off” the accused. This is often done in major cases involving multiple offenders, such as drug dealers, child porn operations, etc. When the indictments are “handed down” police officers begin rounding up the accused criminals. These arrests are often carried out simultaneously in large multi-jurisdictional/agency sweeps. Again, this is done to avoid tipping off co-defendants/conspirators.

Following an indictment and subsequent arrest, the accused is arraigned—charges are formally read and the accused enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest).

Grand Jurors are selected randomly (voter registrations, DMV, etc.) by the clerk of the court and are summoned to appear by the sheriff (serving jury summons is one of the duties of a sheriff, but not a responsibility of a chief of police). In Virginia, Grand Jurors serve, as needed, for a term of six months (they do not meet every day, or even every month). The Grand Jury consists of 5-9 jurors.

Before the Grand Jury begin their duties, the judge reads a list of instructions of their official duties and rules. This reading of instructions is called “Charging the Grand Jury.”

The Grand Jury’s purpose is to determine whether or not there is sufficient probable cause to try the accused for the crime in question. The Grand Jury does not determine guilt or innocence.

Grand Juries normally meet in a jury room, not in open court.

Once in the jury room, the members of the Grand Jury begin hearing testimony from witnesses. Witnesses are called one at a time and are questioned by the members. No attorneys and no judge. And, only witnesses for the prosecution are called before the Grand Jury. The defense is not permitted to present their case at this time.

When all testimony is heard, the Jury then votes. If four or more Jury members vote yes, then it has been decided that they will issue a “true bill,” meaning enough evidence/probable cause exists to proceed with the trial. A vote of “not a true bill,” means the jury did not find an ample amount of probable cause to proceed with a trial at that particular time. However, it is rare to see a Grand Jury return a “not a true bill” finding since all witnesses are prosecution witnesses.

– Grand Jury proceedings are held in secret.

*Remember, rules and regulations governing Grand Juries vary from one state to another. Also, please remember that the above information is basic. There are, as always, exceptions.

 

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Plea Bargains: Voluntary, or Legal Coercion?

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” The Constitution further guarantees that the accused will have the assistance of counsel and may be convicted only if an impartial jury of his peers unanimously determines that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

So what about plea bargains? There’s no judge or jury involved in that process. Instead, a plea agreement is reached when both the prosecutor and defense sit down and hammer out a really good deal for both sides, right? Well, not quite.

A plea bargain is about as one-sided as it gets, and the side that wins nearly every single time is that of the prosecution. In fact, less than 3% of all federal criminal cases make it to trial. This translates into a whopping 97% of all federal cases being decided by a plea bargain. And, it is the prosecutor who decides how much time the defendant will serve behind bars, not a judge or jury of anyone’s peers.

The defense is at a huge disadvantage at the onset of the process because prosecutors hold all the cards—secret grand jury testimony and evidence, crime scene evidence and lab test results, witness statements, and the authority to charge the accused with the most severe offense he believes he can prove…UNLESS the defendant agrees to plead GUILTY in exchange for a charge of a lessor offense, which would result in serving far less time in prison than had he been found guilty of the more severe charge. In many, if not most cases, “far less time” could be a decade or even more.

The way a federal plea bargain works, in short, is like this.

1. Police conduct an investigation and hand over their collected information and evidence to a prosecutor.

2. The prosecutor presents his/her case to the Grand Jury who almost always issues a “true bill,” meaning there is enough evidence/probable cause to proceed with the trial. After all, the only people testifying before them are witnesses for the prosecution. The defense is not a part of the Grand Jury process.

3. The suspect is arrested and incarcerated. A favorite prosecution trick is to have agents/officers make the arrest on a Friday afternoon. This is so the suspect will have to sit in jail throughout the entire weekend, until judges/magistrates return to the bench on the following Monday to hold/conduct a bond hearing (holiday weekends are a bonus because courts are also closed on Mondays). This provides the defendant a bit of eye-opening time behind bars before having an attorney appointed to their case. When Monday morning finally rolls around, many defendants are willing to do or say almost anything to return home, including agreeing to a quick plea deal.

4. Bond is either set or denied.

5. Prosecutor and defense attorney meet either in person or by phone.

6. Prosecutor offers a deal—a lessor charge if the defendant agrees to plead guilty, or face the top charge possible, along with the standard obstruction of justice for not accepting responsibility (not pleading guilty) with as much time in prison as the law allows. Obstruction, by the way, could result in an additional sentence of ten years. And that’s on top of the time for the original charge.

7. Defense attorney presents the “deal” to his client—either plead guilty to the lessor charge and serve time in federal prison for ONLY three years, for example, or refuse the deal and face the possibility of being found guilty anyway, but receive a sentence of twenty years in prison. And, this deal is open for discussion only at that moment. There’s very little time given to consider it. It’s either now or never in most cases. Of course, prosecutors will most likely accept a deal at a later time to avoid taking the case to trial, but the first offer is always the best offer. The longer the wait the more time the defendant will have to serve in prison.

8. The deal is almost always accepted. As I stated earlier, this is so in approximately 97% of all federal criminal cases, including deal acceptance by defendants who are innocent of the crimes for which they’re charged. These folks plead guilty because they’d rather agree to a shorter time in prison rather than face decades behind bars, or, in some cases, the possibility of receiving the death penalty…for a crime they didn’t commit.

In 2012, the average sentence for drug offenders (in federal court) who agreed to plea deals was five years and four months. Defendants who rolled the dice and went to trial were sentenced to an average of sixteen years. It’s a “no-brainer” decision and prosecutors know it and they rely on it. And, a plea deal typically includes a “no appeal” stipulation.

A fair and voluntary system? What do you think? Before you answer, consider this. Of the 2.2 million people in American prisons, over 2 million of those individuals are there as a result of a plea bargain devised by a prosecutor who also determined the amount of time the defendant was to serve behind bars. No jury. No judge. All prosecutor.

Some have said “having our day in court” is a thing of the past. What about you? Do you agree with the current method of plea bargaining?

 

 

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Judge Bill Hopkins: When Bail, Bond, and Divorce Make Me Growl

Photo of Bill Hopkins

As a sitting judge on a general trial court for twenty years, I ran across many things that made me wonder if anyone knew anything about the law. There is, of course, no secret that lawyers and their co-conspirators in all levels of government work daily and diligently to make the law incomprehensible. (CPAs are also guilty, but that’s another blog post.) So if we lawyers make things difficult, we shouldn’t complain when people don’t understand it, right? Wrong.

Here are but three of many things that make me growl.

(1) “A divorce (or dissolution of marriage or whatever your state calls it) is not a lawsuit.”

This one baffles me. Once I was speaking to a non-lawyer and I said, “John sued Mary for divorce.” The fellow answered, “No, he didn’t sue her. He filed a divorce. That’s different.”

If you are married and you do not want to be married, the only legal way I know of to accomplish that is to file a lawsuit asking the court to unhitch you. You must file a petition (or complaint or whatever your state calls it) and the court that hears divorce cases. That makes you the plaintiff (or petitioner or whatever your state calls it). The other party to the lawsuit (your soon to be ex-spouse) is called the defendant (or respondent or whatever your state calls it).

In some states, if you’ve agreed on everything, you can file a notice of settlement and some judge will sign a judgment, declaring you and your sweetie to no longer be married.

If you can’t agree, there could be a knock-down, drag-out courtroom battle that concerns everything from child custody to who gets the matched salt-and-pepper shakers from Hawaii.

That, my friends, is a real lawsuit, the same as if it was Standard Oil and the EPA.

(Note: I heard a divorce case where two judges were getting a divorce. They couldn’t agree on the disposition of a manure spreader. [Insert manure spreader joke here.] I decided it for them and they haven’t complained since.)

(2) “If you have a will, you don’t need to go through probate court.”

As far as I know, there is no such thing as an automatic will anywhere in any state or territory of the United States. (Correct me if I’m wrong. I’d love to see how that works! And, keep reading.)

When you die, there are two ways your stuff (if you have any stuff leftover from paying taxes all your life) is split one of two ways: You have a will or the government decides where your stuff goes.

This one I shouldn’t get too upset about because of the growing prevalence of trusts and other non-probate transfers of property. Such things keep you away from the probate division of the court to some degree or the other (depending on your state).

Free legal advice: Go to a competent—meaning you’ve done your research on the person—estate planning lawyer. Get a financial power of attorney, a healthcare power of attorney, a will, a trust, and advice on how transfer/pay on death works in your state. This can save you a lot of money and heartache. If you don’t care where your stuff goes and you don’t care if you have heartache and grief, then don’t do anything or use forms you found on the Internet.

And there’s no “reading of the will” except on soap operas. In fact, after you make out all your estate-planning documents, you should give photocopies to your potential heirs—you don’t have heirs until you die—and make sure they know how to get to your safe place after you pass. Protect your valuable documents from fire, flood, wind, earthquake, and critters (four- and two-legged).

(3) “Bail and bond mean the same thing.”

BAIL is generally how much the judge wants before you get out of jail and BOND is generally how the bail is made. Don’t ever expect journalists to get this right. And judges and lawyers often confuse it also.

The best way to knock this one flat is to give you three scenarios.

ONE: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “You’ve always shown up in the past when you’ve been arrested so I’ll let you out on your own recognizance and we’ll take your word for it that you’ll be back for your trial.” This is a recognizance bond (or signature bond or whatever your state calls it).

TWO: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “$10,000 cash only bail.” Danny’s decrepit grandmother who barely scrapes by on Social Security, sells her great-grandmother’s diamond ring and forks over $10,000 in cash to the court and gets a receipt made in Danny Defendant’s name. When he shows up, she gets the dough back. If he doesn’t show up, the government keeps the money. This is cash bond (or whatever your state calls it).

THREE: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “$10,000 bail.” Chico leaves the Little League game he’s sponsoring and hustles down to the jail. Chico sells Danny a bail bond for $1000 which is paid for by Danny’s decrepit grandmother who gets a receipt made out in Danny’s name. If Danny shows up when the court tells him to, then the bond is cancelled. If Danny does not show up when the court tells him to, the bond is forfeited and Chico sues the decrepit Grandma for all she’s worth since Danny is gone. This is a bail bond (or whatever your state calls it).

*     *     *

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After two decades on the bench, Bill Hopkins captures readers with his Judge Rosswell Carew murder mysteries. How does a judge manage to wrangle his way into investigating so many crimes? And can he do it without crossing into the dark side himself? Find out by reading the complete series beginning with Courting Murder, followed by River Mourn and Bloody Earth.

Bill Hopkins is retired after beginning his legal career in 1971 and serving as a private attorney, prosecuting attorney, an administrative law judge, and a trial court judge, all in Missouri. His poems, short stories, and non-fiction have appeared in many different publications. He’s had several short plays produced. A book of collected poetry, Moving Into Forever, is available on Amazon. Bill is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dramatists Guild, Horror Writers Association, Missouri Writers Guild, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. Bill is also a photographer who has sold work in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He and his wife, Sharon (also a published writer), live in Marble Hill, Missouri, with their dogs and cats. Besides writing, Bill and Sharon are involved in collecting and restoring Camaros.

Please take a moment to visit Judge Bill Hopkins at www.judgebillhopkins.com

 

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Courtroom Security: The Hidden Side of The Criminal Trial

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You’ve all seen the deputies and other officers who guard courtrooms. Yes, they’re highly visible and they’re there to protect everyone from harm. However, courtroom security is far more than just watching prisoners inside the actual room where the trial is held.

Courtroom security officers diligently monitor spectators, witnesses, and defendants. They also watch the victim’s family members for any signs of potential violence against the defendant(s). And they’re always on high alert for escape attempts by prisoners.

But what we see in the courtroom—stern faces, sharply creased uniforms, and holstered weapons—is the tip of the iceberg. Behind the solid oak door at the rear of the courtroom is a well-oiled security machine with wheels that begin to turn long before the judge, jury, and witnesses sit down to have their breakfasts. In fact, many security measures have been in place for months, maybe years.

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Security starts with things like landscaping around the building and parking areas. Plantings and hardscapes must allow an unobstructed view and no potential hiding spots for snipers and others who may assist in an escape attempt during times of inmate and witness movement.

Outdoor lighting must be adequate, and prevent areas of darkness and shadow. Those yellow posts sticking up through the sidewalks and pavement? They’re in place to prevent a driver from rushing the building, or people. The barriers also prevent vehicles (those containing explosives, getaway vehicles, shooters, etc.) from getting too close to the facility.

Windows and doors are equipped with a shatter resistant film between the layers of glass. As a means of even greater protection some lower floor windows may be fitted with bullet-resistant glass. Doors are tamper proof and are connected to alarm systems.

Visitors to the courthouse, and their belongings, are carefully screened prior to entering secured areas of the facility.

Officer stationed at x-ray machine and walk-through metal detector.

Monitors for x-ray equipment.

Many judges have panic buttons hidden somewhere on their benches.

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A quick press of the button and the alarm sounds in manned stations within the courthouse and in nearby police departments.

Help is on the way in an instant.

Designated parking areas for judges and other court employees is a standard. The same is true for police and inmate transport vehicles. Any unauthorized vehicle in those areas is cause for concern and would require immediate investigation.

To further prevent breaches of security, the public is not permitted in any unauthorized areas of the court buildings.

Courthouses also feature secure areas for weapons and other sensitive material.

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Inmates are awakened, fed, and dressed long before the courtroom is open. All prisoners with hearings on a given day are transported from the county or city jail to the courthouse, where it’s quite possible they’ll each remain until the last trial of the day.

While at the courthouse prisoners must receive meals, bathroom facilities, etc. for the duration of their time there, which could be many, many hours.

Holding cells, where prisoners wait until the time of their trial, are located inside court buildings. After their time in the courtroom is complete, prisoners are returned to the holding cells where they remain until they’re transported back to the main jail, often at the end of the day when all inmates are transported at once.

*It is possible that transportation officers make trips to and from the jail and courthouse throughout the day. This depends on availability of staff members and vehicles. Remember, the fewer times inmates are out and about in the public, even in secured transport vehicles, reduces the opportunities for escape.

Inmate movement inside the courthouse is conducted through special hallways or passageways that are typically not available to the public.

FYI – Some courthouses are directly connected to jail facilities via underground/basement hallways.

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In most areas, the duty of courtroom security falls on the sheriff of that particular jurisdiction. The sheriff assigns deputies to each courtroom, and each of those deputies receive specialized training that’s specific to the courtroom and inmate transportation.

In the federal system the job of courtroom and inmate security falls on the shoulders of the U.S. Marshals.

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Transporting prisoners via the U.S. Marshals’ Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS). JPATS operates a network of aircraft, cars, vans and buses. (U.S. Marshals photo).

Protecting our courtrooms, and shuttling prisoners to and from those facilities, is a tough and dangerous job, a job with duties many people never see.

 

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