Secret indictments happen when a grand jury determines a felony should go to trial without the defendant being aware of the proceedings, but how do you know if you have a secret indictment?
For one, try this search to run a free criminals background check on yourself so you can see if there’s any possible indictments or determine if you’ve been charged with a crime without knowing. In addition, you can dig through public records that are difficult to find or hiring an attorney.
No matter which method you choose, just know that there’s 5 million felony cases tried in the United States each year, and some of those trials started with secret indictments where the defendant was completely unware of the matter.1
Therefore, checking your own background check report and understanding how these types of proceedings can help alleviate any worry and navigate the complexities of the U.S legal system.
Secret Indictment Meaning: What Is a Secret Indictment?
First, it’s important to know how grand jury proceedings in general work. A prosecutor presents a felony packet to the grand jury (a group of 16 to 23 ordinary citizens) to determine if there is enough evidence to support formal charges.
The grand jury reviews the evidence, may hear testimony from witnesses and victims and determines if there is enough information to support formal charges.2
In the United States, grand juries are used on the federal level for felony cases, and on the state level, only Connecticut and Pennsylvania do not use grand juries. In those states, a judge makes a determination of whether or not the case goes to trial and if the indictment is to be sealed.3
When a secret or sealed indictment is sought, the process for reviewing evidence is the same. The difference between open and secret indictments lies in how the information is handled before, during, and after the grand jury proceedings.
In secret indictments, all the hearing notes, testimony, and contents of the indictment are sealed until the alleged offender is taken into custody for the offense. The parties involved are also instructed to not talk to anyone about the proceedings during or after the process.
In other words, until the prosecution is ready to reveal the contents of the indictment, it is sealed or secret.4
The process for a secret indictment is almost exactly like that for a routine felony indictment with the major exception being when the indictment is made public.
How Do You Get a Secret Indictment? How Does a Secret Indictment Work?
When a person commits a felony crime and law enforcement presents the investigative reports to the office of the district attorney (DA), the DA, also referred to as the prosecutor or prosecution, has the option to present the case to a grand jury or return it to law enforcement for further investigation.
The grand jury looks over the investigative reports, reviews the physical evidence that has been gathered, and in some cases, listens to witness testimony and determines if there is enough information to show probable cause.
Probable cause means there is enough evidence a crime has been committed and that the person accused is likely the one who did the crime. Grand jury deliberations are not the same as a guilty verdict, it is simply saying there is enough information to have a hearing before a judge or petit jury (a jury of the accused peers, usually a panel of 6 to 12 people).
When seeking a secret or sealed indictment, the DA presents the case in the same manner with the request the indictment remains sealed and the reason behind the request. In some cases, a judge must order the contents of the indictment remain sealed until the DA is ready to make the information public.
Once the evidence and witness testimony has been presented to the grand jury, there is a pending indictment until the grand jury finishes its deliberations. If a true bill of indictment is issued, the case can go to trial, and the matter is usually public except in cases of secret indictments.
Individuals involved in the sealed indictment process are instructed to not disclose the contents of the indictment, or its existence until the DA makes the information public. The most common reasons for requesting a secret indictment include the protection of witnesses or reducing the flight risk of the person under investigation.5
Because of its nature, it can be difficult to know if someone is the subject of a secret indictment until they have been taken into custody.
How to Check if You Have an Indictment
After a grand jury indicts a person, unless it is sealed by the court, the indictment is considered a public record. While an indictment is not a conviction, it can have an impact on a person’s life, so the quicker someone learns of an indictment the quicker they can work to clear the matter.
It’s also important to understand the difference between indictment vs charge. A true bill of indictment means the grand jury has determined the case can go to trial which is ultimately formal charges against the accused. A grand jury is used when seeking a sealed or secret indictment.
Pressing charges is done by the DA directly. DAs can file charges without using a grand jury in state-level cases, but many DAs prefer to present cases to a grand jury rather than file felony charges directly.6
When a DA presses charges, they present the case to a judge who determines in the preliminary hearing (sometimes called a first appearance or discovery hearing) if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. Since the preliminary hearing results in the case being placed on the docket (the list of cases to be heard in the court that day), and a ruling (court record), it is a public record.6
There are ways a person can check to see if they have been indicted. They can run a free criminal background check on themselves to see if an indictment appears on the record.
Individuals can run a personal background check to show criminal records and they can try this search method to see if an indictment has been issued by a grand jury. Personal background checks can be conducted by the individual or by using a commercial background search site.
Lesser charges connected to the felony indictment may show up on the record, but the secret indictment will not. Indictments that are not sealed can show up on a background check as pending charges.
Some people become aware of an indictment when they undergo a pre-employment screening or tenant screening, or when they work for a company that conducts background checks on existing employees. This is not the ideal way to learn about an indictment.
Sometimes the indictment itself will not show up, but a warrant for the person’s arrest issued after the true bill has been found by the grand jury may reveal the charges.
Arrest Warrant Search
When a true bill of indictment is issued against a person, it triggers the issuance of an arrest warrant. Arrest warrants can show up on background checks, and this is one way to determine if a person has an indictment against them.
Some law enforcement agencies have online portals to search for warrants too which makes some wonder, “Do warrants show up on background checks?” And the fact of the matter is that they can and do show up on certain types of criminal record screenings.
An arrest warrant issued due to an indictment affects more than just the person’s freedom. For instance, can you pass a background check with a warrant? It depends on whether or not the warrant shows up on the check, and what the warrant is issued for.
Sometimes a warrant with a secret indictment is also sealed until the DA directs law enforcement to take a person into custody.
When the indictment is not sealed or secret, it is considered a public record and there are things a person can do to find out if they have a felony charge pending.
Individuals who are indicted under the federal system can find the information through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). This is the central point of access to all federal criminal court records. When a person is indicted, the record should be accessible through PACER unless it has been sealed by the court.7
Hire an Attorney or Bail Bondsman
If someone suspects they are being investigated by law enforcement for a felony, they can hire an attorney or bail bondsman to help them determine if an indictment has been issued. The attorney or bail bondsman can also help the individual surrender to the court, negotiate and post bail, and start preparing a defense to the charges.
Learning about a routine indictment can be an easy process, but how do you know if you have a secret indictment?
How Do You Know If You Have a Secret Indictment?
While it is difficult to determine if there is a secret indictment against someone, there are some signs that the DA may have sought formal charges through a sealed process. In fact, even a level 3 background check may not reveal a secret indictment. How do you know if you have a secret indictment?
Even running a free criminal background check on themselves may or may not reveal an indictment. There are other indicators someone may be a suspect in a felony case.
Questioning By Police
If the police call a person or go by their home or work to question them, this can be an indication they are under investigation for a felony offense. While being questioned doesn’t automatically mean the person is a suspect, it is possible a secret indictment has been sought by the DA.8
Local Court Records
A search of local court records may reveal a secret indictment but it is unlikely. Since the indictment is sealed until the DA decides to unseal it, reviewing court records may not reveal a sealed charge.
The clerk of the court’s office maintains files on all court proceedings, so a public search at the clerk’s office may reveal a secret indictment; however, this isn’t likely since the record is considered sealed until the DA makes it public.8
Additional Charges Have Already Been Filed
How do you know if you have a secret indictment? Sometimes only parts of the indictment will be sealed, but other charges are public. For example, a person can be charged with a misdemeanor offense connected to the same incident where the felony was committed.
The misdemeanor in this incident is a public charge, but the DA may seek a sealed indictment for the felony. How long does a misdemeanor stay on your record? This depends on the state laws regarding misdemeanor records and how long they can be considered on background checks.
Additionally, some states provide automatic removal of misdemeanor charges when they are dismissed.
In the matter of secret indictments, how long does a felony stay on your record? Again, it depends on if the case results in a conviction following trial if the matter is eligible for expungement, and the state laws regarding waiting periods to expunge felony records.
For example, Delaware passed legislation in 2021 stating certain felonies can be automatically expunged from a person’s criminal history if the case was dismissed in the person’s favor. Therefore, if a secret indictment was issued and the case was later dismissed in the defendant’s behavior at trial, it must be removed from the public record.9
If a person is involved in a routine, minor traffic stop, and a felony offense is discovered, the person may be charged with the traffic offense while the DA seeks an indictment for the felony. An example is when drug trafficking charges are made following a traffic stop. Do traffic violations show up on a criminal background check? If they are misdemeanor offenses, or the background check includes driving history, or they are connected with a felony indictment, they can.
A search of public records can reveal that some charges have been filed in an incident but not all the aspects of it are covered in the public record. This could be an indication a felony indictment may occur at a later date.
Ultimately, the indictment remains sealed until the DA makes the determination to reveal the indictment and what it contains.
How To Find Out if You Have a Sealed Indictment
Due to the nature of a sealed or secret indictment, it is extremely difficult to find out if one has been issued by a grand jury. Since the records are sealed, they are not considered public records and cannot be revealed by conventional means. There are some things a person can do to try to find out if they are subject to a sealed indictment, but these are not always effective.
How do you know if you have a secret indictment? The most common way a person finds out they have been secretly indicted is when the DA unseals it and the person is taken into custody. At this point, the person needs to hire a defense attorney or get a court-appointed attorney to help fight the charges in court.
Another way to try to find out if a person has a secret indictment is to hire a defense attorney to try to find out or petition the court to unseal any indictments against their client.
How Long Does a Secret Indictment Take?
The amount of time it takes to get a secret indictment varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Members of the grand jury are selected to serve anywhere from one month to a year; however, they do not hear cases every day for that time period. The grand jury may meet (convene) only a few days out of each month.10
Additionally, the DA has some discretion when it comes to presenting the case to the grand jury. The only limitation that the DA has to adhere to is the statute of limitation for the state where the secret indictment is being sought. Once the indictment or formal charge is handed down, state statutes may also limit how long the DA has between formal charges and trial.
The Constitution of the United States also guarantees individuals the right to a speedy trial once the person has been charged with a crime. Per the Sixth Amendment, a person has a right to a public trial without any unnecessary delays.11
So, how do you know if you have a secret indictment? Sadly, until a person is taken into custody they may not know. There are some things they need to do once they learn a secret indictment has been issued against them.
What Actions Should You Take After Finding Out You Have a Secret Indictment?
When someone learns they are subject to a secret indictment, the best thing they can do is hire a defense attorney. If they only learn about the indictment when arrested, the person should request an attorney before any questioning. The attorney can help with a number of issues that arise when the true bill is issued by the grand jury.
For example, if the person has not yet been taken into custody, an attorney can help coordinate surrender to law enforcement. The attorney can then petition the court for a bail hearing to see if the accused can be released on bail.
The attorney can also start building a defense against the charges filed in the indictment. Because the indictment was secret, the defense is in the position of leveling the playing field for the accused.
The person subject to an indictment can also perform a criminal background check on themselves to see if other charges appear or are pending.
The accused also needs to consider how an indictment will impact their life. What happens if the charges are ultimately dismissed? If charges are dismissed do you have a criminal record? While some states remove dismissed charges from criminal records, others do not. A sealed indictment, when dismissed, may or may not show up on criminal history. It depends on when it was dismissed (before or after an arrest was made).
The accused may also suffer other effects of the secret indictment once it is unsealed and the person is taken into custody. If they cannot make bail or are denied bail, they may lose their job because they don’t show up for work. Does getting fired go on your record?
While getting fired may not show up on a record, being fired due to incarceration can be guessed by the person doing the check if they match the dates of incarceration with the date of employment terminated.
Does an indictment mean jail time? Not necessarily. While a warrant can be issued when an indictment is issued, the defense attorney can petition the court immediately to set bail, and a bail bondsman can post it without a person ever being placed in a jail cell. This is why it’s important to hire an attorney once someone finds out they have been indicted.
From paid employment to volunteering, an indictment can have a major impact. A non-profit background check can reveal a person has been indicted by a grand jury and prevent that person from volunteering in the community.
Secret indictments, however, are not likely to show up on a nonprofit background check, but it is something a person will want to clear up as quickly as possible after finding out they are subject to a secret indictment.
So when wondering, “How do you know if you have a secret indictment?” always try this search first, and if that doesn’t work, check public records to the best of your ability even though they may be sealed in some instances.
Frequently Asked Questions