Skinner Law Firm Blog | Drunk Driving / DUI

What Is the Function of a Grand Jury in a Criminal Trial

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Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyer - Skinner Law Firm

People are often confused about the meaning and function of a grand jury in our legal system. A grand jury is a legal body comprised of a group of citizens or laypeople. They determine whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges to trial.  Their job is to investigate possible criminal activity. The grand jury is presented with an accusation and supporting evidence by the prosecutor. The grand jury then decides whether or not there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a criminal trial. Grand juries play a major role in the U.S. criminal justice system.

What Is the Legal Basis for Grand Juries?

Early colonists brought the idea to the United States from England. Here in the U.S., the legal foundation for grand juries is found in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Grand juries are tools used as part of a criminal procedure to bring an indictment against a defendant. Today they are usually used in serious felony cases. However, they’re not always required and in some cases not even used. In addition to considering whether individuals may have committed a crime, a grand jury can also be used by a prosecutor as an investigative device to force witnesses to testify or turn over documents.

Approximately half of U.S. states recognize grand juries as a procedure in state criminal charges. Only North Carolina and Georgia included the right to a grand jury in their first state constitutions, but other state legislatures later passed laws authorizing grand juries. The importance and usage of grand juries vary. States that do not use grand juries instead use preliminary hearings for felony cases. Rather than instead of impaneling a grand jury, a criminal complaint would be filed, listing the charges and facts of the case. After filing, the complaint would be reviewed by a judge in a preliminary hearing. In 2018 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court changed the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. The rules now provide that instead of presenting live testimony at a preliminary hearing, prosecutors may proceed by a grand jury. This is often done in cases where there is a risk of witness intimidation. Grand jury cases usually are cases of violent crimes.

What’s the Difference Between a Grand Jury and a Regular Jury?

A regular jury decides the facts in trial cases. A grand jury is used to decide whether probable cause exists to support criminal charges. Probable cause means that there are reasonable grounds for believing that an accusation is well-founded. Trial juries are given evidence by the prosecution and the defense. The accused is present in court and has a right to a defense attorney. In a criminal case, the trial jury must decide whether someone is guilty or innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest burden of proof in the legal system.

A grand jury consists of 12 to 23 jurors, charged with investigating possible criminal conduct. Grand juries are used by federal, state, and county prosecutors to determine whether there is probable cause to support criminal charges.

How Grand Juries Are Selected

Like trial jurors, grand jurors are chosen from a random pool of ordinary citizens. In a federal grand jury case, all U.S. citizens who are legal adults and who live in the federal court’s jurisdiction are eligible. Other requirements include adequate fluency in English. A juror must be mentally and physically able to render satisfactory jury service. Jurors must never have been convicted of a felony (unless the person’s civil rights were restored) and must not be currently charged with a felony. The court then randomly chooses candidates for the grand jury from this pool. Grand jurors are expected to serve anywhere from a month to a year on average. In most cases, it’s a few months. During that time, they usually sit a few days a week.

Once the grand jury is impaneled, the prosecutor has the power to subpoena witness testimony and other documentation. During the proceedings prosecutors present evidence, including witnesses, documents, and photos. Court officers and grand jury clerks are there, but no judge is present. Neither the accused nor the attorney for the accused has a legal right to testify. However, in most cases, the accused has an opportunity to testify, but the accused will only be questioned by the prosecutor. However, grand jurors can submit questions to the prosecutor for the witnesses. When the evidence is concluded, the prosecutor will read legal instructions to the jurors. The jurors then have the power to vote an indictment if they believe a crime has been committed. The prosecutor must have established that probable cause exists to support criminal charges against the accused person.

Work of the Grand Jury

Felony cases require a determination of probable cause that a crime has been committed in order for a case to move forward. To make this determination, there must be some evidence of each element of the offense. In some cases, this is done at a preliminary hearing, in others, a grand jury.

Grand jury proceedings are required to be secret. Therefore, the public has no right to know who was subpoenaed or what documents are reviewed. The secrecy helps to encourage witnesses to come forward and to allow the jurors to make decisions without the threat of reprisal. The requirement of secrecy also means, however, that the defendant does not know what evidence is being considered. There is a risk that the prosecutor may choose to withhold evidence that would prove favorable to the defendant.

Need Legal Assistance? Call the Skinner Law Firm Now

The grand jury has been a fundamental part of the United States legal system since the nation was founded. If you are facing a criminal charge, it is important to understand that a grand jury has no power to convict someone of a crime—they can only issue an indictment. Michael J. Skinner and the attorneys at Skinner Law Firm are experienced in handling criminal defense matters. If you have questions, need legal assistance, or wish to schedule a free consultation, contact Skinner Law Firm online or call (610) 436-1410.

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Questions to Ask Your DUI Lawyer

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DUI Attorney in West Chester PA

According to 2017 statistics, someone in the United States dies in drunk-driving accidents every 48 minutes. Although Pennsylvania alcohol-related fatalities decreased from 297 to 293, alcohol-related crashes increased in 2017. In Pennsylvania, drinking and driving is an important safety issue and is taken very seriously by courts and legislators.

Being charged with driving under the influence, or DUI, is an unnerving experience. You may be concerned about losing your driver’s license, your freedom, and costs and fines. Having a DUI on your record may have a long-term impact on your employment and your future. It is essential to retain the services of an experienced Pennsylvania DUI defense attorney. Asking your prospective attorney questions about your case should happen as soon as possible. Do not hesitate to ask questions. Remember, the attorney will be defending you. Naturally, you will be under a great deal of stress, so when meeting with a DUI attorney, it is a good idea to bring a list of any questions you want to ask. Here are some questions you should ask.

What Kind of Experience Do You Have Handling Driving Under the Influence Cases?

  • Does your practice focus on DUI law, or are you a general practice attorney?
  • How long have you practiced DUI law?
  • What percentage of your caseload is devoted to DUI cases?
  • How many of these cases did you handle in the past year and how successful were those cases?
  • What percentage of your DUI cases go to trial.
  • How often have you been able to get the charges dropped or reduced to a lesser offense?
  • Do you have any specialized training in DUI law?

What Is the Law Pertaining to DUI Cases in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania’s new, stricter DUI laws came into effect in October 2018. The new law contains stiffer penalties for drunk driving convictions and creates a new felony category for some DUI offenses.

  • What do I need to know about Pennsylvania DUI law?
  • What about recent changes in the law?
  • How long will a DUI stay on my record?

What Are My Options?

The Pennsylvania laws regarding driving under the influence are very complex. There are a variety of options, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. A first time DUI offender may be eligible for the “ARD” or Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program. There are certain requirements to be admitted into the ARD Program, however.

The prosecuting attorney from the county in which you are charged must first make a recommendation. However, defendants still usually face a number of hurdles. The District Attorney considers whether or not there were any serious to people involved in the accident or other major damage arising from the incident which led to your DUI driving arrest, and extenuating factors such as whether there were any passengers under the age of 14 in your vehicle at the time of the DUI. Other factors pertaining to your criminal background record may exclude you from participation in the program. In some cases, the ARD program may not be the best option for you. It’s important to ask your attorney:

  • What options are potentially available for my case?
  • Is it possible to avoid going to jail?
  • What about negotiating a lesser penalty for me?

How Well Do You Know the Local Area?

The law pertaining to DUI is the same throughout Pennsylvania. However, the administrative practices of the courts and the department of motor vehicle offices may differ according to their location. Different counties may have specific programs, such as work release or house arrest. Therefore, it is important to know about the attorney’s familiarity with the local courts and law enforcement. You may ask a prospective lawyer:

  • Do you regularly defend DUI cases in the local area?
  • How well do you know the local courts and prosecutors?

How Do You See My Case Playing Out?

By the end of the consultation, you and the attorney should have discussed all the facts. It is important to provide complete and truthful facts, in order for the attorney to give you a fair and reasonable outlook. Once you have hired an attorney, he or she should be able to review police reports, dash cam videos, and other available information. Only then will he or she be able to form the most effective strategy to argue your case and give you a good idea of what to expect.

Who Will Handle My Case?

It helps to know who you will be working with as your case progresses:

  • Will there be other staff working on my case, such as support staff, or paralegals?
  • Will other experienced attorneys be working on my case?
  • Who will be representing me in court?

How Do You Communicate With Your Clients?

People tend to have different expectations of attorney-client communications. Some clients want frequent updates; others only want to be notified of significant developments. It helps to have an understanding about communications from the beginning, to avoid misunderstandings later:

  • How do you prefer to be contacted?
  • How often will I receive updates on the status of my case?
  • How quickly can I expect a response if I need to contact you?

How Much Should I Expect This to Cost?

There are a great many variables involved in the cost of a DUI case. There may be other expenses in addition to attorney’s fees. You probably will not get an exact price, but there may be a reasonable estimate:

  • How much do you expect to charge for my case?
  • Do you charge a fixed fee calculation or is it an hourly rate?
  • What is included in the fee? What is not included?
  • Will I be billed for travel time or mileage?
  • How much is the retainer or minimum first payment?

Get Help With Your DUI Case Today

Michael J. Skinner and the attorneys at the Skinner Law Firm handle DUI cases in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding areas. We can fight to protect your rights and seek the best possible outcome for your case. For more information or to schedule a free consultation, call Skinner Law Firm at (610) 436-1410 or contact Skinner Law online. We are here to help you.

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