Federal Grand Jury Banner



    Site Map   Links Home

FAQ's about Grand Juries Federal Grand Jury Info Multimedia Overview
Feedback, Comments, & Stories State Grand Jury Info Grand Juries in the News


Grand Jury Functions

Grand Jury functions

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 so. 
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 improprieties. 
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." 

Federal Grand Jury
Home Page


E-mail questions, comments, or suggestions regarding this site 

Credits: Susan Brenner, Lori Shaw
Website Research Assistant : Dave Hunter
Copyright 1997 - 2003 All rights reserved
Privacy Policy