An Introduction to Felony Criminal Practice and the Grand Jury Process
In New York State, felony practice is considerably more complicated because of the plea-bargaining guidelines, procedural issues, and the complicated nature of felony sentencing.
Felonies are defined by classifications and levels, which will be explained further below. Additionally, felony drug offenses are treated differently in terms of options available and sentencing guidelines. The New York State Legislature recently amended the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses.
In New York, every person has the right to be prosecuted by an indictment when charged with a felony. See Criminal Procedure Law Sections 200.10 and 200.50. However, because plea deals are often reached before the indictment many people elect to plead off of what is known as a Superior Court Information (SCI). An SCI, in essence, is a waiver of a defendant’s right to be indicted. The reasons why defendant’s plead off of an SCI instead of an indictment are numerous, but the main reason is because of the District Attorneys’ Offices’ “No Plea Bargaining Post Indictment" policies. For more information on SCI’s, refer to Criminal Procedure Law Section 200.15.
Many defendants, however, when faced with a felony charge, elect to be indicted and proceed to trial. Additionally, every person charged by way of felony complaint has the right to have a Grand Jury hear the evidence against them, and that Grand Jury will decide whether or not the felony charges can stand.
Because of the increased complexity, and consequences, associated with felony offenses it is vital that you or your loved one be represented by an attorney experience in handling complex criminal cases.
THE GRAND JURY’S ROLE IN FELONY CASES
The Grand Jury is a group of citizens who serve for a definite period of time, whose sole job is to hear felony cases presented by Prosecutors. The Grand Jury is compromised of not less than sixteen nor more than twenty-three people. A Grand Jury does not determine a defendant’s guilt of innocence. A Grand Jury simply decides whether or not they believe there is reasonable cause to believe that the Defendant committed a felony offense. For the law applicable to the Grand Jury, please refer to Criminal Procedure Law Article 190.
In the Grand Jury, the District Attorney presents their evidence. There is no judge in the Jury chamber. It is up to the Prosecutor to make sure that he is following the applicable rules of evidence, or else risk the indictment being subsequently dismissed by a judge. The Grand Jurors are allowed to ask questions and request that they receive proof, such a photographs, testimony from certain witnesses, and or other tangible evidence. As long as what the Grand Jurors’ request is legally permissible, the District Attorney must provide it.
There is no cross examination of witnesses in the Grand Jury. This is because the defendant and his attorney are not allowed in the chamber. Grand Jury is a secret proceeding. Only if the Defendant chooses to testify, which is his constitutional right, are he and his attorney allowed into the secret proceeding. If the Defendant testifies, the Grand Jurors can ask questions and based upon the testimony, request to hear from other witnesses or see certain documents.
If the Grand Jury believes that a felony has been committed, they vote to indict the person. This is called a true bill. An indictment is not proof of any guilt; it is only the legal mechanism by which prosecutors can proceed to trial. If the Grand Jury believes that no offense has been committed, felony or misdemeanor, they vote to dismiss the charges. This is called a no true bill. The Grand Jury can also reduce the felony charges against a person to misdemeanor charges. This is called voting a Prosecutor’s Information.
Decisions and strategy concerning Grand Jury action are critical for a defendant in a felony and must be considered with the assistance of only a qualified criminal defense attorney.