Grand juries and trial juries are both made up of average people who are called for jury duty, but they serve very different purposes.

A grand jury investigates civil and criminal matters in proceedings closed to the public. A civil grand jury investigates the operation, management and fiscal affairs of the county and municipalities.

A criminal grand jury has constitutional authority to indict a suspect after finding “probable cause” that he or she has committed an offense. A trial jury gives a decision about whose facts they believe in the trial itself.

What Is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury helps a prosecutor decide whether to bring criminal charges against a suspect in a crime. Under California law, grand juries in counties with populations of more than 4 million consist of 23 people while smaller counties — like Santa Barbara County — usually have 19. Grand jury proceedings may last for months at a time.

Grand juries work closely with the prosecutor, who explains the law to the jurors. The jurors are empowered to view almost any kind of evidence, if it would be admissible at trial, and to interrogate anyone they like. The procedure for grand jury hearings is very relaxed to allow the jurors as much flexibility as possible.

Generally, the parties who appear before the grand jury do not have attorneys, and the rules of evidence are more lenient. This means that more evidence may be presented than is typically allowed at a criminal trial.

Grand jury proceedings are held in strict confidence to encourage witnesses to speak freely, as well as to protect the suspect if the grand jury decides not to bring charges.

Prosecutors take a grand jury’s decision whether to bring criminal charges against a suspect very seriously. However, if the prosecutor strongly disagrees with a grand jury’s decision, he or she may ignore the decision and decline to prosecute.

Why Would a Prosecutor Bring Cases to the Grand Jury?

Prosecutors might pursue a grand jury indictment in cases where a preliminary hearing might be unreasonably delayed. Or where there are complicated factual issues, multiple counts or multiple defendants.

Or, where the witnesses are afraid for their safety, or where the risk of pretrial publicity might be unduly prejudicial to a defendant’s right to a fair trial. Or, where there is risk that a suspect may flee the jurisdiction.

Remember, grand jury proceedings are held in secret.

In addition to the requirement that prosecutors only present admissible evidence to the grand jury, prosecutors must also present all potentially exculpatory evidence as well to ensure a fair proceeding for the accused.

I’ve Been Subpoenaed to Testify Before the Grand Jury. Do I Need a Lawyer?

YES! You would be well advised to seek the advice of a lawyer before you testify before the grand jury. You need to know if you are there as a witness or are a suspect. You need to know what your rights are before you answer any questions.

What Is a Trial Jury?

Trial juries decide the facts of a criminal case during a formal trial and consist of 12 people, not including alternates. If a juror is selected for trial, he or she will have to work every day of the trial, which may last a few days, several weeks or even months.

The procedures for jury trials are very strict and are controlled entirely by the judge. Each party in a trial typically has an attorney. Unlike a grand jury, a trial jury usually has no say in what evidence they get to see. Each party’s attorney carefully chooses the evidence to present on their client’s behalf during trial, and the evidence must adhere to a set of rules designed to ensure that it is reliable. Trial juries can ask questions but they are addressed to the judge.

A trial jury’s decision is final. Although a decision may be appealed, a trial jury’s determination of the facts will hold throughout the entire appeal process.

Seeking an Attorney’s Advice

Whether your case is being decided by a grand jury or your case is moving toward a jury trial, there are complex legal issues at every stage. Knowing which motions to file to delay your case, investigate witnesses or force a beneficial plea bargain is critical.

If you’re being investigated for a crime or if you’ve already been charged and may soon face a jury, you should contact a criminal defense attorney to better understand your situation. This ensures that you’ll know more about your legal options moving forward, and will be able to make well-informed decisions about your case.

Sanford Horowitz is a partner with Horowitz Law in Santa Barbara. The opinions expressed are his own. This article is not intended to provide legal advice. For legal advice on any of the information in this post, click here for the form or phone number on the Horowitz Law contact us page.