The concept of a grand jury can be baffling to some. So what is it? In South Carolina, as with every other state, there is a requirement that a serious criminal case be presented to the grand jury. In South Carolina, that is found in our Constitution in Article I, Section 11. Likewise, the United States Constitution guarantees the right to grand jury review in the Fifth Amendment.
Okay, so we have the right, but what exactly is it? Here in South Carolina, a grand jury consists of 18 people in the county that are selected just as any other juror would be selected. This usually occurs at the beginning of the year, and those jurors will serve for a period of one year. Each year, six of the grand jury members are chosen as “carryover jurors” or sometimes, “holdover jurors.” This is so there are some experienced members on the grand jury at all times, and they are all not starting as new members. Therefore some of them will serve a total of 2 years.
Usually, before every term of court, the grand jury will be called. At least 12 members of the grand jury have to participate and vote for a charge to proceed. The grand jurors generally meet in a room designated for that purpose in the county courthouse. Typically, the law-enforcement officer or a law-enforcement officer with the agency will present the case to the grand jury.
For example, the officer will stand at the end of the table and say:
“On December 5th I executed the traffic stop on Mr. Smith’s vehicle for speeding. When I approached the driver side of his car, I saw a pistol laying on the front seat. At that time he was removed from the vehicle and charged with unlawful carrying of a pistol for having it out in the open on the seat.”
That would be the extent of the officers testimony. There are no other witnesses called, and no opportunity for cross-examination. In fact, if you were charged with a crime, you probably will never even know when your case will be presented to the grand jury.
The grand jury must make one of three decisions. They can either vote to “true-bill” the indictment, “no-bill” the indictment, or take no action. A “true-billed” indictment means that at least 12 of the 18 members have determined that there is sufficient probable cause for the state to proceed with its case. A “no-bill” indictment simply means that they did not find sufficient probable cause. A grand jury may elect to take no action if they need more evidence to decide, or for example if the officer, in the middle of his presentation, decides that he doesn’t have all the information.
It is commonly said that a grand jury will “indict a ham sandwich.” I have a little more faith in the system then what is conveyed by that sentence. However, the point of the statement is that the likelihood of your case being indicted by a grand jury is very high.
Only cases that are of the Circuit Court level, meaning cases in General Sessions Court, must be presented to the grand jury. Magistrate and municipal level cases do not have to be presented to a grand jury to proceed.
There is also called the “State Grand Jury” which generally hears matters involving multi-jurisdictional crimes. Local grand juries also have the power to subpoena other witnesses, call for investigations, and report certain matters to the court. Realistically, these other powers are never utilized.
If you have been charged with an offense that has been indicted, chances are it carries significant jail time, and you certainly need to either apply for a public defender or hire a quality criminal defense attorney to represent you or your family member.