In criminal law, a formal written accusation of a crime affirmed by a grand jury and handed up to the court for trial of the accused. In the U.S., the indictment is one of three principal methods of charging offenses, the others being the information (a written accusation resembling an indictment, prepared and presented to the court by a prosecuting official) and, for petty offenses, a complaint by the aggrieved party or by a police officer. An indictment may contain several counts.
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Traditionally an indictment was handed up by a grand jury, which returned a "true bill" if it found cause to make the charge, or "no bill" if it did not find cause. Most common law jurisdictions (except for much of the United States) have abolished grand juries.
In Brazil an indictment is called denúncia and is issued by the public prosecutor, a member of the Public Ministry. In case of less serious offenses, the indictment may be filed by a private party and is called queixa.
In many (though not all) U.S. jurisdictions retaining the grand jury, prosecutors often have a choice between seeking an indictment from a grand jury, or filing a charging document directly with the court. Such a document is usually called an information, accusation, or complaint, to distinguish it from a grand jury indictment. To protect the suspect's due process rights in felony cases (where the suspect's interest in liberty is at stake), there is usually a preliminary hearing where a judge determines if there is probable cause that the charged crime was committed by the suspect in custody. If the judge finds such probable cause, he or she will bind or hold over the suspect for trial.
The substance of an indictment or other charging instrument is usually the same, regardless of the jurisdiction: it consists of a short and plain statement of the time, place and manner in which the defendant is alleged to have committed the offense. Each offense is usually set out in a separate count. Some indictments for complex crimes, particularly those involving conspiracy or numerous counts, can run to hundreds of pages, but many indictments, even for crimes as serious as murder, consist of a single sheet of paper.
Indictable offenses are normally tried by jury, unless the accused waives the right to a jury trial. The Sixth Amendment mandates the right of having a jury trial for any criminal offense punishable by imprisonment for more than six months. Notwithstanding the existence of the right to jury trial, the vast majority of criminal cases in the U.S. are resolved by the plea bargaining process.