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What Is an Indictment?

Most common law legal systems provide for a formal process of accusation. Such a process entails the use of a written document that details the charges or accusations brought up by one party against another. This refers to an indictment.


An indictment is more often used in cases of felony charges rather than misdemeanor charges. Upon the initiation of criminal or civil litigation against another party, the prosecutor or the plaintiff provides for a list of charges that he or she wishes to bring against such party. Thus, it is the responsibility of the prosecutor or plaintiff to instigate an indictment. It is common in the United States to have grand juries pass an indictment upon an individual. Such indictments are referred to as a true bill when the charges or accusations made have merit. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution provides for this procedure when it states that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Military when in actual service in time of War or public danger..."


Therefore it must be noted that prosecutors have the option of filing the indictment themselves at a court of law or request for an indictment from a grand jury. When the prosecutors file an indictment, the document that details the charges or accusations is referred to as information, accusation, or complaint. This distinguishes it from the indictment given by a grand jury.

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