When can a Traffic Stop Become a Federal Case?
Interviewer: Why does the government spend so much time investigating? Is it because they want to make sure they only move forward if they have a real case? Do they just want to make sure that they do not fight any battle they cannot win?
Paul: I think it is both of those. The U.S. Attorney’s office wants to make sure they have a valid case. I think they want to make sure that they have sufficient evidence before they move forward.
That is not always the case. Suppose a highway patrolman makes a traffic stop on I-70. He may or may not have an idea when he makes the traffic stop that this car is carrying a large load of drugs from California. I think there is a lot of hunch, a lot of law enforcement hunch and suspicion there.
However, that is a situation I call a lightning strike arrest that turns into federal prosecution. This is opposed to someone who finds out they have been indicted after participating, for 18 to 24 months, in this ring that has been under investigation.
You still do have some of these lightning strike arrests out on the highway that will turn into a federal case. Then the hope is that the person arrested provides information about where they got the drugs and where the drugs were headed.
Interviewer: What is an indictment versus just being charged at the state level? What does the word “indictment” mean?
Paul: Indictment, at the federal level, is essentially the same thing as filing a formal criminal complaint at the state level. Indictment is a fancy word for accusation or criminal complaint.
With formal indictment, once the prosecutor is ready to proceed they will present the evidence they have to a grand jury. Suppose the grand jury, having seen the prosecutor’s evidence, believes there is probable cause a crime has been committed. Then, the grand jury will bind that case over for formal charging or indictment.
Interviewer: Do they have the situation, present it to a jury, and then have the jury rule whether there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime?
Paul: Yes, that is correct. When they have these grand jury proceedings, the jury is instructed on the probable cause standard of proof. This is different from a jury trial, where the jury is instructed on the proof beyond reasonable doubt standard.
For purposes of grand jury indictment, they are told in legalese what probable cause means. They are told they are to apply that standard in determining whether or not they believe there is mere probable cause a crime has been committed.
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