Many people wrongly assume that whatever charge they’ve been arrested on is the only charge that the state can pursue against them at trial. In reality, the warrant is merely the starting point. Under Georgia law, formal charges (the charges that will be presented to a jury at trial) are brought through one of two ways: a grand jury indictment or an accusation. I’ll discuss both here briefly, but first I will give you a general overview of how charges go from warrant to trial.
INVESTIGATION BY THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE
Once a person has been arrested on a felony, the district attorney’s office for that county opens a file on the case. A DA investigator then works to gather all the information necessary to be able to prosecute the case including the detective’s reports, police reports, witness statements, crime lab testing results and more. Once the investigator completes that job, the case is transferred to an assistant district attorney who reviews the file and determines what, if any, charges can successfully be prosecuted against the defendant. The ADA can add charges or take them away as he/she sees fit. Often there is a significant difference between the original warrants and the final charges presented at trial.
FILING AN INDICTMENT OR ACCUSATION
The ADA then drafts up either an accusation or an indictment depending on the case. Georgia statutory law determines which charges must be presented to a grand jury and which ones can proceed by accusation. An accusation is a document that describes the criminal act against the accused in legally sufficient detail and is then filed with the Clerk of Superior Court for the County. No group or tribunal reviews the accusation to determine whether there is enough evidence: the ADA just files it with the clerk and the charges are official.
The grand jury is a group of 23 citizens selected at random from each county that meet regularly over the course of the ‘grand jury term.’ Their primary purpose is to hear evidence presented by the district attorney’s office through witnesses and determine whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction based on that evidence. Arguably, the grand jury acts as a check to the district attorney’s office and can ‘no bill’ an indictment if it doesn’t believe the state has a sufficient case. In reality, however, most grand juries do exactly what the DA’s office asks them to do on almost every case. It is often considered to be the DA’s ‘rubber stamp’ – meaning it does whatever the DA asks of them.
The grand jury can be used for other purposes as well, such as the special grand jury that investigated DeKalb DEO Burrell Ellis recently that garnered so much media attention.
There are very specific rules that must be followed with indictments and they are far too numerous to discuss here. Suffice it to say that it’s important to hire an attorney who is knowledgeable about those requirements because the state’s failure to adhere to the rules can result in the dismissal of the case.
If you (or someone you love) are facing criminal charges, please contact me at 404-474-2531 for a free and confidential consultation.