The criminal justice system can be complex and confusing, and one area that often causes confusion is the difference between an indictment and a charge. Although both of these terms are used in criminal proceedings, they refer to different legal procedures, and understanding the difference between them is essential if you or someone you know is facing criminal charges.
What is a Charge?
In criminal law, a charge is a formal allegation that someone has committed a specific crime. It is the first document that a prosecutor files in court to commence criminal proceedings against a person. When a person is charged with a crime, it means that the prosecutor has gathered enough evidence to believe that the person has committed a crime.
In most cases, a charge is issued by a police officer, who makes an arrest with probable cause. Once an arrest is made, the police submit a report to the prosecutor listing the charges against the suspect. The prosecutor then reviews the report and decides whether to file formal charges. If the prosecutor decides to proceed with the case, they file a complaint or an information in court.
A complaint is a written document that contains a brief statement of the charges against the defendant. It is used for less serious crimes, such as misdemeanors or minor offenses. If the crime is more serious, the prosecutor may present an information to the court instead. An information is a sworn statement by the prosecutor that sets out the charges against the defendant.
Once a charge has been filed in court, the defendant can either plead guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, they may be sentenced immediately. If they plead not guilty, the case will proceed to trial, and the prosecutor will be required to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
What is an Indictment?
An indictment is a formal accusation against a person that charges them with a serious crime. An indictment can only be obtained by a grand jury, a group of citizens who are selected to hear evidence in a criminal case and determine whether there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime.
Unlike a charge, which can be issued by a police officer or a prosecutor, an indictment can only be obtained by a grand jury. The grand jury is typically made up of 16 to 23 jurors who have been selected from a pool of citizens. The grand jury hears evidence presented by the prosecutor and decides whether to indict the defendant.
The indictment is a written document that sets out the charges against the defendant. It lists the specific crimes that the defendant is accused of committing and provides details about the alleged offenses. It is important to note that an indictment is not a determination of guilt. It is simply a formal accusation that starts the criminal proceedings against the defendant.
Indictments are usually used in cases involving serious crimes, such as murder, rape, or major fraud cases. Once an indictment has been obtained, the defendant is summoned to court to answer the charges against them. At this point, the defendant can enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If they plead guilty, they may be sentenced immediately. If they plead not guilty, the case will proceed to trial.
Key Differences Between a Charge and an Indictment
The main difference between a charge and an indictment is the way in which they are issued. A charge is issued by a prosecutor or a police officer, while an indictment is issued by a grand jury. This difference has significant implications for the defendant, as an indictment indicates that the case against them is more serious.
Another important difference is the level of evidence required to obtain a charge or an indictment. To file a charge, a prosecutor must have enough evidence to believe that the defendant has committed a crime. For an indictment, a grand jury must find that there is enough evidence to charge the defendant with a serious crime.
Finally, charges and indictments carry different levels of severity. Charges can be issued for minor offenses, such as traffic violations, while indictments are reserved for more serious crimes, such as murder or fraud. As a result, an indictment is a more serious legal procedure and carries more severe consequences than a charge.
In conclusion, a charge and an indictment are two distinct legal procedures used in criminal proceedings. A charge is a formal allegation that someone has committed a specific crime, filed by a police officer or prosecutor, while an indictment is a formal accusation issued by a grand jury. The main difference between the two is the level of severity of the crime of which the defendant is accused, the way in which the charges are issued, the level of evidence required to obtain a charge or an indictment, and the implications for the defendant. Understanding the difference between a charge and an indictment is essential for anyone involved in a criminal proceeding.