What Is A Sealed Indictment?

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If you are ever charged with a state or federal crime, there is a lot of legal language that may confuse the layperson. But if you understand the terminology and procedures, the process may not be as intimidating with the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Sealed Indictment Definition

A sealed indictment is simply the legal term for accusing someone of a felony crime. A felony crime is a crime that is punished by more than one year in prison.

As far as an indictment, that means the criminal charge has been presented to a grand jury, and they concluded there was enough evidence to charge the person with a crime. This means the state or federal case will go to a trial in front of a judge and jury.

While the grand jury is technically an independent body, most grand juries do indict who the prosecutor asks them to indict.

A sealed indictment just means the grand jury process is accomplished in secret. In fact, the secrecy is strict enough that the defendant may not even know they could be arrested.

Once the indictment has been issued against the defendant, they will be arrested and charged. But the sealed indictment will not be provided to the public. So, you may not know you are being investigated or the offenses that are being looked into.

Eventually, the criminal indictment will be unsealed. Then, a warrant for the defendant’s arrest is issued. Keep in mind that a sealed indictment is always unsealed but it may be later in the legal process.

Many states have a preliminary hearing in front of the magistrate or a lower court to show evidence that justifies using a sealed indictment.

Why Are There Sealed Indictments?

One of the most common reasons the legal system uses a sealed indictment is so the defendant doesn’t flee the state or country. This is done so they do not know they are being investigated until they are already in custody. So, there’s no reason for them to take off.

With a sealed indictment, the prosecutor will appear in front of the grand jury, but the defendant won’t know they are being investigated. They will learn of the indictment eventually but it could take some time.

The grand jury proceeding isn’t a trial, so the defendant isn’t there to defend himself. The indictment process is merely looking into the chances that you committed the crime.

The grand jury may also use a sealed indictment to protect people from having their identities revealed. For example, witnesses’ and victims’ identities can be protected for a time with a sealed indictment.

Next, the sealed indictment may give law enforcement more time to investigate the matter. They may need additional time to investigate others who may have participated in the crime. If the case is unsealed too soon, some suspects may get wind of it, which could affect the criminal investigation.

At the appropriate time that is up to the prosecutors, the sealed indictment is unsealed and the arrest warrant is issued. While the indictment is sealed at first, it will eventually get into the public record when you go on trial.

Sealed Indictments Are Only For Felony Charges

If the suspect is indicted by a state or federal grand jury, the charges usually include a felony crime. According to the Fifth Amendment, Americans cannot be charged with ‘capital’ or ‘infamous’ crimes without the charges being reviewed by a grand jury.

Many states use sealed indictments to charge felonies, while others opt for a preliminary hearing. There, a lower court judge reviews the case to decide if there’s enough evidence that the suspect committed a felony crime.

How A Sealed Indictment Can Be Challenged

Grand jury indictments are secret. You won’t know charges are pending, and it will take longer for you to find out if there is a sealed indictment.

By the time the indictment is unsealed, you may already be arrested and prosecutors have had plenty of time to build their case. That’s why hiring a skilled criminal defense attorney is critical. State and federal prosecutors have the financial resources and manpower that can be hard to beat.

However, a skilled attorney can successfully challenge a state or federal indictment. The charges sometimes can be proven at trial to be untrue. But there are other ways the sealed indictment can be challenged before there is a trial:

  • Not offering enough details about the nature of the charge
  • Not showing the law was violated
  • Not pleading all elements of the crime
  • Alleging a crime happened after the statute of limitations elapsed
  • Bringing the case to the improper court or venue

Remember Your Rights If You Are Indicted

Whether the indictment is sealed or unsealed, all defendants have protections under state and federal law when they appear in front of a judge. Every defendant has these rights with a sealed or unsealed indictment:

  • Have a criminal defense attorney represent you
  • Learn the evidence the prosecutor has against you for the alleged crime
  • Give a plea of guilty or innocent
  • A fair trial before a jury

The sealed or unsealed indictment doesn’t mean you are innocent or guilty of the alleged crime. It only means the grand jury believes there is sufficient evidence in the case for you to be criminally charged.

Understanding legal terminology, such as ‘sealed indictment,’ is important so you better understand the criminal justice process.

Attorney Geoffrey G. Nathan

About Geoffrey Nathan, Esq

Geoffrey Nathan is a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1988, admitted to practice in both Federal and State courts. He is a Boston criminal defense attorney with over 25 years of experience in felony, federal, and white-collar crimes. Board of Bar Overseers Number #552110