What You Need to Know about Grand Juries in New Jersey
In New Jersey, before an arrest, law enforcement or police must have evidence that shows that there is probable cause that the accused committed a crime. This evidence can come in a variety of forms, but it is usually a fellow citizen or police officer who observed the crime, this is known as probable cause. While sometimes it requires an extensive investigation, in many situations, police can find probable cause to arrest following a vehicle stop (i.e. illegal drugs, an illegal gun or the driver is intoxicated- DWI.)
There are two types of criminal complaints in New Jersey—warrant complaints and summons complaints. Warrant complaints are signed by a judge and allow a police officer to arrest an accused person while a summons complaint orders that a person appear in court but does not, in and of itself, justify an arrest. This is known as a “first appearance” in New Jersey and under the state’s criminal justice reform, which was implemented on January 1, 2017, the first appearance must occur within 48 hours of the defendant’s commitment to county jail. At the first appearance a judge will determine whether the accused is to be released or held in pre-trial detention. During the first appearance, the accused may appear with an attorney, but they are also advised of their right to counsel. If an accused indicates that he or she isn’t able to afford an attorney, the criminal justice division staff conducts an indigence investigation to determine a person’s eligibility for a public defender.
If the person fails to appear in court the judge can issue a bench warrant for their arrest.
A criminal complaint must state the reason for the charge and must reference a specific crime or offense. While criminal offenses, otherwise known as crimes, fall under the jurisdiction of the Superior Court, traffic offenses, disorderly persons, petty disorderly persons, and non-criminal charges (ordinance violations) fall under the jurisdiction of one of New Jersey’s 539 municipal court.
The Role of the Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey
When a complaint is filed for a crime (indictable offenses) it will be forwarded to the county prosecutor’s office rather than municipal court (disorderly persons offenses). The county prosecutor’s office will review the complaint and obtain all relevant elements and determine the appropriate disposition for the complaint. The prosecutor’s office may handle the complaint in several ways:
- Administratively dismiss
- Remand to Municipal court (Disorderly Persons Only)
- Prosecute the matter in Superior court (Indictable Crimes
The Burden of Proof to Indict at a New Jersey Grand Jury
An indictment isn’t a finding of guilt, but rather that enough evidence exists for a person to stand trial on a charge, otherwise known as an “indictable crime” within the Garden State.
There is a Prima Facie burden of proof at a grand jury which is the same evidentiary standard judges use to issue search warrants.
If the grand jury does not find that there is sufficient evidence (aka “No Bill”), it may find that enough evidence exists to charge a person with a less serious offense (disorderly or petty disorderly) and remand the case to municipal court which is a court of limited jurisdiction.
What are the obligations of a New Jersey Prosecutor before a Grand Jury?
The State, through the prosecutor, isn’t required to even inform the grand jury that the accused didn’t have a motive for committing the crime for which the state seeks the indictment. There is also no obligation for the prosecution to present evidence which could impeach the credibility of the witness testifying before the grand jury (i.e., the witness’s prior criminal history). The prosecution is only required to present “clearly exculpatory evidence” such as physical evidence of unquestioning reliability which demonstrates that the accused didn’t commit the alleged crime. The standard for “clearly exculpatory” evidence is high, and the New Jersey Constitution allows trial courts to act with substantial caution before concluding that the prosecution’s decision to not present this evidence amounted to an error which will allow them to dismiss the indictment entirely.
Motion to Dismiss the Indictment for Lack of Prima Evidence
Once a grand jury indicts, the only recourse for an accused individual is for his or her attorney to consider a motion to dismiss the indictment based on insufficient evidence to establish a Prima Facia case against the accused. Keep in mind however that a New Jersey criminal trial court will only dismiss an indictment only where the grand jury’s decision was based on “manifestly deficient or defective” grounds. This is a very high evidentiary standard to overcome for the defense and, in most situations, a trial court won’t overturn the decision of a grand jury. While an accused can appeal a trial court’s decision denying a motion to dismiss to an appellate court, a New Jersey appeals court will find in most cases that it is within the discretion of the trial court to make this determination. Remember that a grand jury doesn’t determine guilt, but only that a clearly innocent person does not face prosecution because of some over-zealous prosecutor, partisanship, or some personal vendetta.
Pre-Indictment Plea Agreements
Prior to an indictment the prosecutor and defense attorney will enter into plea negotiations where the prosecutor typically offers the defendant a plea agreement which usually features a reduced term of incarceration or perhaps probation in exchange for a plea. In addition, some agreements downgrade or dismiss charges.
Prior to entering into an agreement, the defense attorney will review the document with the accused. He or she must sign a statement certifying that he or she understands the plea and is entering into the agreement voluntarily without pressure from the prosecutor or his own defense attorney. Keep in mind, the judge isn’t obligated to accept the plea agreement and can order the defense and prosecution to re-negotiate the matter or schedule a trial.
Indictment and Discovery
If the accused is indicted, he or she must appear for an arraignment, which is a formal notification of the charges against him or her. The arraignment typically occurs within 14 days of the indictment and it is during this time when discovery or evidence is made available to defense counsel. Following review of that discovery the attorney may advise his client to consider the Pre-Trial Intervention Program (PTI), or carry on further plea negotiations.
Keep in mind that judges usually give the defense the option to continue plea negotiations and will schedule an additional status conference (s) to determine a possible plea. Plea negotiations can’t continue indefinitely, and a judge will set a “plea cut-off date” where no further plea negotiations can occur.
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