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Following last night's announcement that a grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, many may have questions about how grand juries operate.
Grand juries are generally called on to decide whether there is probable cause to bring criminal charges against an individual, typically in cases which may result in serious, felony charges. Although all states have laws allowing for grand juries, not all states make use of grand juries.
Besides Missouri, what other states use criminal grand juries?
According to the University of Dayton Law School of Law, all but two states, plus the District of Columbia, use grand juries for criminal indictments in at least some cases. Connecticut and Pennsylvania have both abolished the use of grand juries for criminal indictments. But both of these states still make use of grand juries for investigations of criminal activity.
In 23 states, indictments are required for certain serious crimes. These states are: 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.
In the 25 other states, a grand jury indictment is optional. In those states, charges may be brought by a document called the information. In many states, an information is written by a prosecutor, similar to the initial criminal complaint, but is reserved only for felony or serious charges. Typically an information is filed after a preliminary hearing, including those charges which were found supported by probable cause.
In states where indictments are not required, whether probable cause exists to charge a defendant with a crime may be determined at a preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, a judge will listen to arguments from both sides before determining whether or not the case should proceed to a criminal trial.
Learn more about the criminal laws in different states at FindLaw's Learn About the Law section on State Criminal Law.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
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