Probable Cause and the North Carolina Grand Jury

North Carolina laws provide three ways by which a case can be prosecuted in Superior Court, which is where all felonies must be tried. The prosecutor may request that a judge find probable cause that the person committed a crime after a hearing in open court. This is called a probable cause hearing. If the District Court judge finds probable cause exists, the District Court judge can bind the person over for a trial in Superior Court.

While some counties in North Carolina sometimes have probable cause hearings, in Wake County there is almost never a probable cause hearing. Defense lawyers practicing in Wake County may have had a probable cause hearing once in a career.

(The reason they’re so rare probably has to do with the open setting. The prosecution in Wake County typically does not want to produce its witnesses for vigorous cross-examination by a defense lawyer.)

The second way a case may be prosecuted in Superior Court is upon a bill of information, whereby the defendant typically consents to the finding of probable cause. This will occur in cases where there is a plea agreement, and the defendant simply signs the bill of information so that the case can be resolved expeditiously.

The third way a case may be prosecuted in North Carolina’s Superior Courts (also known as its trial courts) is through a Grand Jury indictment. Article 31 of Chapter 15A of the North Carolina General Statutes defines a grand jury and establishes how it works.

A North Carolina grand jury has not less than 12 people and not more than 18 people, drawn at random from the county. The grand jury differs from the petit jury (which is a trial jury) in that a grand jury does not determine guilt, but merely determines whether there’s “probable cause” to believe the person committed the crime. Probable cause is a very low standard, basically indicating there are some facts to think the person may have committed the crime. Consequently, plenty of innocent people are indicted, and plenty of people are indicted for which guilt will never be found because there is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Second, the defense does not have the opportunity to either present evidence to a North Carolina Grand Jury or to even appear and hear what is said at a NC Grand Jury. And since, by law, grand jury proceedings are secret and there is no transcript, no one – besides the grand jurors themselves and the witnesses, usually police officers, who appear at them know what is said.

In addition, it is illegal for anyone, including grand jurors themselves, to discuss what has happened in the grand jury room with anyone who was not present.

As you can imagine, given such rules, a grand jury is basically a rubber stamp for the police and prosecution. There is no check on the grand jury. In the past five years, I’ve seen only one case “no true billed” and that case was sent back to a new grand jury for a second try, where the indictment was “true billed.” The person was later found not guilty – because he did not do the crime – after about a 5 minute deliberation by a trial jury. That’s how weak the case was. (Although that poor guy spent 8 months waiting in jail for his day in court.)

So when you see people who’ve been “indicted” in North Carolina, consider this old adage: “A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich for the death of a pig.”

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.