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The role of the grand jury in Florida felonies

It is probably safe to say that the average person in Tampa would be able to give a pretty accurate response if asked to describe the role played by trial jurors in a case involving a felony charge. If nothing else, most people have watched enough crime dramas on television to know that a trial jury hears the evidence presented by the prosecutors and the defense before reaching a verdict finding the accused guilty or not guilty of the charges.

Asking the same question about Florida grand juries might not get the same result. The grand jury is not as familiar to most people as is a trial jury due, in part, to the secrecy that the law imposes on grand jury proceedings.

Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury does not decide whether a person is guilty of the allegations presented by prosecutors. A grand jury hears evidence presented by prosecutors from the state attorney's office; but unlike a trial jury that cannot act on its own initiative to gather evidence, a grand jury may conduct its own investigation into allegations of criminal conduct.

Once it completes its investigation or hears all of the evidence presented by prosecutors, the grand jurors vote to determine if there is sufficient evidence to bring a person to trial. A finding by the grand jury that a criminal charge is warranted is called an "indictment."

A grand jury exists as part of the circuit court or Supreme Court in Florida for investigation, accusing and reporting purposes. It is composed of 15 to 21 jurors, who are state residents and are at least 18 years of age. Grand jurors are selected at random.

State law in Florida authorizes the state attorney to bypass a grand jury when charging people with most felonies, except for a first-degree murder charge. An individual may only be charged with first-degree murder following a grand jury proceeding and an indictment.

Other serious charges, such as rape, robbery, burglary and felony drug charges may be filed by prosecutors on their own or, if they choose, by presenting the evidence to a grand jury.

Although a grand jury proceeding is not a trial, it is an important stage a criminal case. If you are the target of a grand jury investigation, a consultation with a criminal defense attorney might help you to understand your rights and how best to protect them.

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