- Date: 14th century
- 1 a : the action or the legal process of indicting b : the state of being indicted
- 2 : a formal written statement framed by a prosecuting authority and found by a jury (as a grand jury) charging a person with an offense
- 3 : an expression of strong disapproval <an indictment of government policy on immigrants>
In the common law legal system, an indictment (pronounced /ɪnˈdaɪtmənt/ in-DITE-mənt) is a formal accusation that a person has committed a criminal offense. In those jurisdictions which retain the concept of a felony, the serious criminal offence would be a felony; those jurisdictions which have abolished the concept of a felony often substitute the concept of an indictable offence, i.e. an offence which requires an indictment.
Traditionally an indictment was handed up by a grand jury, which returned a "true bill" if it found cause to make the charge, or "no bill" if it did not find cause. Most common law jurisdictions (except for much of the United States) have abolished grand juries.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States states in part: "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..."
In many (though not all) U.S. jurisdictions retaining the grand jury, prosecutors often have a choice between seeking an indictment from a grand jury, or filing a charging document directly with the court. Such a document is usually called an information, accusation, or complaint, to distinguish it from a grand jury indictment. To protect the suspect's due process rights in felony cases (where the suspect's interest in liberty is at stake), there is usually a preliminary hearing where a judge determines if there was probable cause to arrest the suspect in custody. If the judge finds such probable cause, he or she will bind or hold over the suspect for trial.
The substance of an indictment or other charging instrument is usually the same, regardless of the jurisdiction: it consists of a short and plain statement of the time, place and manner in which the defendant is alleged to have committed the offense. Each offense is usually set out in a separate count. Some indictments for complex crimes, particularly those involving conspiracy or numerous counts, can run to hundreds of pages, but many indictments, even for crimes as serious as murder, consist of a single sheet of paper.
Indictable offenses are normally tried by jury, unless the accused waives the right to a jury trial. The Sixth Amendment mandates the right of having a jury trial for any criminal offense punishable by imprisonment for more than six months. Notwithstanding the existence of the right to jury trial, the vast majority of criminal cases in the U.S. are resolved by the plea bargaining process.
A direct indictment is one in which the case is sent directly to trial before a preliminary inquiry is completed or when the accused has been discharged by a preliminary inquiry. It is meant to be an extraordinary, rarely used power to ensure that those who should be brought to trial are in a timely manner or where an error of judgment is seen to have been made in the preliminary inquiry.
An indictment can be sealed so that it stays non-public until it is unsealed. This can be done for a number of reasons. It may be unsealed, for example, once the named person is arrested or has been notified by police.