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Photo of Joshua Nielsen
Photo of Joshua Nielsen

Probable Cause Hearings and Grand Jury Indictment

by | May 6, 2016 | criminal defense

North Carolina laws provide three ways by which a case can be prosecuted in Superior Court, which is where all felonies must be tried. The prosecutor may request that a judge find probable cause that the person committed a crime after a hearing in open court. This is called a probable cause hearing. If the District Court judge finds probable cause exists, the District Court judge can bind the person over for a trial in Superior Court.

The probable cause hearing is a great time for a criminal defense lawyer to vigorously cross-examine the state’s witnesses and potentially end the case. If the court were to find no probable cause for arrest then the state’s case is effectively over. It is also a very good opportunity for criminal defense lawyers to learn about the strength of the State’s case.

The second way a case may be prosecuted in Superior Court is upon a bill of information, whereby the defendant typically consents to the finding of probable cause. This will occur in cases where there is a plea agreement, and the defendant simply signs the bill of information so that the case can be resolved expeditiously.

The third way a case may be prosecuted in North Carolina’s Superior Courts is through a Grand Jury indictment. Article 31 of Chapter 15A of the North Carolina General Statutes defines a grand jury and establishes how it works.

A North Carolina grand jury has not less than 12 people and not more than 18 people, drawn at random from the county. The grand jury differs from the petit jury (which is a trial jury) in that a grand jury does not determine guilt, but merely determines whether there’s “probable cause” to believe the person committed the crime. Probable cause is avery low standard, basically indicating there are some facts to think the person may have committed the crime. Consequently, plenty of innocent people are indicted, and plenty of people are indicted for which guilt will never be found because there is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Second, the defense does not have the opportunity to either present evidence to a North Carolina Grand Jury or to even appear and hear what is said at a NC Grand Jury. And since, by law, grand jury proceedings are secret and there is no transcript, no one – besides the grand jurors themselves and the witnesses, usually police officers, who appear at them know what is said.

Also, it is illegal for anyone, including grand jurors, to discuss what has happened in the grand jury room with anyone who was not present.

As you can imagine, given such rules, a grand jury is basically a rubber stamp for the police and prosecution. There is no check on the grand jury. So if you have been indicted to not worry, this is part of the process and you still have every available defense that your case might have otherwise. Choose an aggressive and smart criminal defense attorney and get ready to push for trial.