The San Diego County Grand Jury has been around since 1850, mandated by the California constitution.
While the right to grand jury indictment is one of the few guarantees in the Bill of Rights never made applicable to the states, the Fifth Amendment requires that federal prosecutions begin with an indictment, according to a 2002 reform of California’s grand jury system by Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review.
The 19-member grand jury panel is made up of citizens sworn to investigate county civil and criminal matters, including the actions of local governments, school districts, special districts and non-profit corporations, with the power to subpoena witnesses.
A grand jury may conduct hearings to determine if there is sufficient evidence to bring an indictment against a person with a public offense, however, the district attorney typically calls for an empanelment of separate juries drawn from the petit or regular trial jury pool to bring criminal indictments.
San Diego County Grand Jury coordinator Laura Nicks handles the coordination and scheduling of the grand jury.
“A civil county grand jury looks to different local entities and responds to citizens’ complaints … then they write reports making recommendations to city officials in the hopes that it might make the process and the office run more efficiently,” Nicks said. “Where as a criminal grand jury — their sole purpose is to listen to the facts ... and make sure there is enough information to indict…”
San Diego County uses penal code 904.6, which allows the district attorney to empanel a grand jury for purposes of indictment, according to Nicks.
An indictment is a criminal charge issued against a defendant following a grand jury review of evidence and the decision that enough proof is available to prosecute.
Prior to indictment, a defendant may receive what’s referred to as a Johnson letter, informing them that he or she is the target of a grand jury investigation.
While the defendant has the right to present information to the district attorney, who is required to present any evidence that can negate the guilt of a defendant to jurors, because the meeting is secret, the defense cannot be present or question witnesses.
Defense attorneys say it’s this reason that makes a grand jury one-sided and why many prefer a preliminary hearing, used to determine whether probable cause exists that the offense charged in the information has been committed by the defendant, and which is heard before a judge.
However, should the DA fail to present that evidence in a fair manner, he or she may be subject to a 995 motion, brought by the defense to dismiss one or more counts of the complaints.
The grand jury stems from 12th century England, praised by some for its role in protecting citizens from oppressive government and serving as a watchdog, but criticized by others for abusing its power or deemed ineffective due to incompetent jurors.
The merit of the grand jury system has been questioned, as in political indictments.
Case in point is the San Diego County’s 1998-99 grand jury, which publicized it’s investigation of then Mayor Susan
Golding when it made what some called baseless accusations of misconduct in connection with passing a downtown ballpark measure. In that case, the grand jury failed to obtain evidence from Golding and ultimately brought no charges against her. Despite that, her political reputation was irreparably damaged.
A grand jury panel is picked at random from a pool of applicants recommended by a judge, comprised mostly of retired persons.
Civil grand jurors serve one-year terms, while criminal grand jurors typically serve for one month.
“We’ll pick a (criminal) grand jury for the entire month,” she said, adding that’s the typical length of an investigation. “We don’t usually keep them longer.”
Citizens selected for a civil grand jury must, at a minimum, meet six hours a day, four days each week from July 1 through June 30.
The Office of the Jury Commissioner accepts applications for grand jury service each year from Dec. 1 through the first week in January. It reviews the applications and makes a list of qualified applicants for the court.
Decisions are reached by a majority vote.
“Twelve of the 19 (jurors) have to arrive at a consensus,” Nicks said.
To qualify as a grand juror, a person must meet specific qualifications including begin a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years old, among other things.
A court reporter typically has 10 days from an indictment to release the grand jury transcript; however, extensions are allowed.