An indictment is a formal, printed accusation. It is used by a number of common-law legal systems around the world such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and Botswana. In the United States (U.S.), this charging document is used in both the federal and state legal systems. It commonly is used in situations where a person is believed to have committed a felony. Also, it may be used for misdemeanors but it is not very common.
In U.S. courts, a prosecutor generally is the person responsible for the creation of this charging document. When the prosecutor has strong beliefs that a particular person committed a particular crime, he may present his case to a grand jury. This is the body that decides whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial. If an indictment is denied on the grounds of insufficient evidence, a prosecutor may be allowed to present the case again in the future, but attempts to do so are not common.
Grand juries are almost exclusively used in the U.S. The United Kingdom utilized grand juries at one point but eliminated them decades ago. A magistrate now is allowed to present an indictment directly to the court.
In the U.S., the indictment often is presented to the accused at his arraignment. This is a court hearing where a person is made aware of the charges against him. The indictment that he receives can include numerous charges.
Each crime that a person is charged with is considered a count. If, for example, a person is accused of murdering two others, he may be charged with two counts of murder. An indictment usually separately and clearly outlines each count.
It normally also includes the time and place where the crimes allegedly occurred. Details of how the accused is believed to have committed the crimes may be included. It also is necessary for the indictment to outline which court has jurisdiction to hear the case, and to acknowledge that this court has the authority to act in the event that a person is found guilty. The wording of certain parts of an indictment is very sensitive in some jurisdictions.
The indictment usually entitles a person to have a jury trial. This is an opportunity for the accused to have the evidence for and against him accessed by a group of impartial peers. A person is not, however, required to accept a jury trial.