Historically, grand juries have performed two functions.
They decided whether someone should be charged--"indicted"--for committing a
crime. They also investigated criminal activity and the conduct of public affairs. Before
the American Revolution, colonial grand juries essentially ran local government,
supervising everything from road-building and bridge maintenance to the operation of local
jails. Over the years, they lost much of their public affairs function, as the operation
of local government was taken over by administrative agencies, an institution that did not
exist in colonial times.
Indicting:Grand juries hear evidence presented by a prosecutor and
decide whether it creates probable cause to believe that specific persons have committed
crimes. Prosecutors usually submit a statement of proposed charges known as an
"indictment" to a grand jury. The prosecutor leaves the jurors alone and they
decide if the evidence gives them probable cause to believe the people named in the
indictment are guilty of the crimes it charges them with. If a majority of the jurors vote
for the indictment, it is "returned" and initiates a criminal case against the
people it names as defendants.
All but two states and the District of Columbia use grand juries to indict.
Twenty-three states (Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine,
Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York,
North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas,
Virginia and West Virginia) plus the District of Columbia require that indictments be used
to charge certain crimes. These states tend to follow federal practice, requiring that
indictments be used to charge serious crimes and allowing other charging instruments, such
as informations and complaints, to be used to bring charges for minor felonies and
misdemeanors. Informations and complaints are like indictments in that they charge
particular persons with committing crimes, but unlike indictments, they are initiated by a
prosecutor acting without the assistance of a grand jury.
Twenty-five states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii,
Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New
Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming)
make the use of indictments optional. Most of them let prosecutors use either an
indictment or an information to charge any offense.
Connecticut and Pennsylvania have abolished the use of grand juries to return
indictments, but kept the investigating grand jury. Both used a constitutional amendment
approved by the electorate to abolish the indicting grand jury. Connecticut replaced the
grand jury's determination of probable cause with a hearing before a judge. Pennsylvania's
amendment gave each county court the option of using informations, instead of indictments,
to bring charges. All of the courts chose that option and ended the use of the indicting
grand jury in Pennsylvania.
Investigating:As noted earlier, grand juries traditionally investigated
both criminal activity and the conduct of public affairs. State grand juries still retain
these functions, although not every state gives its grand jury both functions.
(1)Investigating criminal activity
At the federal level, grand juries can, and do, investigate criminal activity,
especially organized crime. They do not, however, initiate their own investigations.
Perhaps because federal criminal law tends to be very complicated, federal grand juries
are simply the instrument federal prosecutors use to conduct their own investigations of
possible crimes. Grand juries give prosecutors the ability to subpoena witnesses, who have
to testify under oath, and to subpoena the production of evidence.
Grand juries in every state plus the District of Columbia can investigate
criminal activity. This is even true in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, which eliminated the
indicting grand jury. In so doing, Connecticut also abolished the use of
"civilian" grand juries; instead of being composed of ordinary citizens, its
investigating grand jury is made up of between one and three judges. Pennsylvania still
convenes grand juries composed of ordinary citizens.
State investigating grand juries can be divided into three categories. In some
states, including Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, and North
Carolina, grand juries are limited to investigating criminal activity that is brought to
their attention by a prosecutor or by a court. Grand juries in other states, including
Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada,
North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West
Virginia, can investigate any activity that appears to violate the criminal law of their
state as long as the activity in question occurs within their venue, which is usually the
county in which the grand jury sits. The third category is composed of state grand juries
that investigate certain kinds of criminal activity, which often involves drug crimes or
organized crime. These grand juries, which are known as "special grand juries,"
"statewide grand juries," "state grand juries" or "multicounty
grand juries," usually sit in addition to the more conventional grand juries that are
usually convened in these states.
(2).Investigating non-criminal activity
Federal grand juries lost their ability to investigate non-criminal activity
and report on what they found. Using federal grand juries to investigate civil matters
declined in the nineteenth century and was abolished when the Federal Rules of Criminal
Procedure were adopted in 1946.
State grand juries still have this ability. The most common civil matter they
investigate is the operation and condition of local jails and other confinement
facilities. Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois,
Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Nevada,
New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming
either require that grand juries investigate these institutions or permit them to do
Grand juries in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Minnesota, Missouri, North
Dakota, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma and Tennessee investigate the conduct, and potential
misconduct, of county officers and employees. Grand juries in some states, including
Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas, monitor the conduct of
elections and bring criminal charges against those whom they believe committed
Some states give their grand juries various specific tasks. Alabama grand
juries, for example must investigate the county pension list to determine if anyone is
receiving pension who is not entitled to it. California grand juries must scrutinize
transfers of land which "might or should escheat to the State of California",
and must also investigate certain kinds of non-profit corporations. Georgia grand juries
must approve any proposed change in a county's boundaries, as well as set the yearly
compensation paid to probate court judges, court clerks and bailiffs. Tennessee grand
juries are charged with investigating any failure to comply with state rules that require
rabies vaccinations for cats and dogs, while Pennsylvania grand juries must approve
proposals to erect statutes honoring military veterans. Other states, such as Alaska and
Nevada, simply instruct their grand juries to "investigate and make recommendations
concerning the public welfare or safety."