On Tuesday, February 24, at 9 a.m., (previously incorrectly published as 8 a.m.) the annual selection of the Scott County Grand Jury will take place on the second floor of the Scott County Courthouse. This proceeding is open to the public, and the people should avail themselves of the opportunity to participate in one of the most constitutionally protected authorities still available to hold governments accountable.
The power of the grand jury is enormous. Most of us barely know of its existence, let alone embrace its vital relevance. The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution (1787) provided for grand juries as a means of checks and balances, ensuring that the people, not government, held the ultimate responsibility for providing justice: "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury ... ."
The 1846 Iowa Constitution (Article 2, Section 11) reads: "No person shall be held to answer for a criminal offence, unless on presentment, or indictment by a grand jury, except in cases cognizable by justices of the peace, or arising in the army or navy, or in the militia when in actual service in time of war or public danger" (RCReader.com/y/jury1).
The 1857 Constitution of the State of Iowa (Bill of Rights, Article I, Section 11), asserts that "All offenses less than felony in which the punishment does not exceed a fine of one hundred dollars, or imprisonment for thirty days, shall be tried summarily before a Justice of the Peace, or other officer authorized by law, on information under oath, without indictment, or the intervention of a grand jury, saving to the defendant the right to appeal, and no person shall be held to answer for any higher criminal offense, unless on presentment or indictment by a grand jury, except in cases arising in the army, or navy, or in the militia, when in actual service, in time of war or public danger."
Annually, 12 randomly selected members of the community form the Scott County Grand Jury, seven of whom are active, while five are alternates in case one of the seven cannot perform his or her duties. The grand jury has four primary responsibilities: (1) to provide indictments on criminal activities, whether brought by the county attorney or upon its own investigations; (2) to inspect the condition of all places of confinement in the county; (3) to investigate the circumstances involving prisoners who have not been indicted within the legal period of time (45 days upon incarceration); and (4) to investigate and indict misconduct by public employees, including elected and appointed officials.
The grand jury enjoys very broad authorities that include a civic duty to indict persons based on each juror's own conscience regarding the law, its merits, and its application. In other words, if the law is a bad law, or it is a good law but being applied badly, or the evidence is inconclusive contrary to the prosecutor's and/or judge's opinion or instruction on the law, the juror is free to not indict. It's often misunderstood that a grand-jury indictment is not a verdict of guilt or innocence. It is the origins of due process to prove guilt or innocence.
The power of the grand jury cannot be overstated. In an age of arbitrary enforcement of the law, arguably targeted at low-income and minority perpetrators (most without the resources to adequately defend themselves) of nonviolent offenses, grand juries have the power to restore a significant measure of justice.
It used to be that any infraction that resulted in jail time of 30 days or more, or a fine exceeding $100, required the case be given over to the grand jury for indictment before prosecution could proceed. The grand-jury investigation of wrongdoing was a secret proceeding by law that did no harm to the accused if no indictment was forthcoming.
However, in 1884 when the 1857 Iowa Constitution was amended, a paragraph was added to Article I, Section 11: "The grand jury may consist of any number of members not less than five, nor more than fifteen, as the general assembly may by law provide, or the general assembly may provide for holding persons to answer for criminal offenses without the intervention of a grand jury" (RCReader.com/y/jury2).
This constitutional revision is an abandonment of the spirit of the founding due-process restrictions that protect citizens from all branches of an abusive government. Iowa's General Assembly - the legislators - provided for this erosion of original protections, administratively via Iowa Court Rule 2.5, which provides: "All indictable offenses may be prosecuted by a trial information. An information charging a person with an indictable offense may be filed with the clerk of the district court at any time, whether or not the grand jury is in session" (RCReader.com/y/jury3).
Trial informations permit prosecutors to submit, in writing, a probable-cause testimony/statement of evidence that a judge then signs off on. This far-less-rigorous finding is what has replaced the more-exhaustive peer-reviewed grand-jury indictment, creating what amounts to a virtual daily cattle call of offenders to be milked for revenue in the form of court costs, attorney fees, confinement fees, and fines, whether paid by the accused or taxpayers.
In many cases, the most feeble trial informations can suffice, creating all manner of hardship for the accused, long before any prosecution determines guilt. If found not guilty, the damage - both financial and to the accuseds' reputations - is nonetheless done, even if the crime/infraction is minor and harms no one.
In our current law-enforcement system, any arrest of a person, regardless of the offense (from no seat belt to murder), stays on his or her record permanently, with few exceptions, regardless of whether that person is actually indicted or not, let alone convicted.
Taking someone's freedom, creating the onerous cost burden of a defense, and all the other social consequences that arise from criminal indictments and prosecution demand an honorable system of justice that provides for meaningful due diligence. Instead the courts have become mechanized revenue streams via daily processing of mostly indigent offenders who are ill-equipped to navigate, let alone defend against, the ever-burgeoning justice system that actually thrives because of them.
Imagine if the original standard for convening grand juries were still in effect today. The prison-industrial complex would surely be less congested, especially relative to the alarming number of nonviolent incarcerations. Throughout the nation, because of dangerous overcrowding, prisons are releasing all manner of violent criminals. This problem would disappear overnight if rational lawmaking prevailed and nonviolent offenses were adjudicated with proper weight by comparison. Crimes that actually do harm to others would have far greater impact in terms of consequences, resulting in greater deterrent. But until then, grand juries and petit juries (juries selected for specific trials of crimes) can adjust for abusive laws through legitimate findings of not guilty.
Make no mistake: Courts are big business. So much so that the Seventh Judicial District and all the other judicial districts in America are incorporated with financial statements that include assets and profits. Each year, increasing numbers of administrative statutes are enacted that defy the spirit of the law they are supposed to uphold. These administrative rules are enacted under the guise of legislative intent. Such statutes reflect no such thing, instead creating more new regulations that, if violated, will result in additional revenues.
Scott County Attorney Michael Walton argues that the grand jury here would have to operate 24/7 to consider the 5,000 indictments that occur each year. Meanwhile, trial informations expedite indictments exponentially. As if such a method is an improvement in efficiency versus a degradation of the requisite due diligence required in the original Iowa Constitution. It should be noted that no such amendment to forgo grand-jury review exists in the U.S. Constitution.
If grand juries were still required to lock someone up for nonviolent offenses, it is possible there would be an overhaul of the justice system, with far more emphasis on reducing recidivism. Imagine the court's and the state's administrative profit motive being checked by grand juries. The kinds of infractions that are nonviolent and harm no one yet result in high court costs, expensive taxpayer-funded jail time, and big fines would necessarily be reviewed for more-efficient remedies that avoid incarceration - hence more in keeping with true justice.
Grand juries are still critical to our justice system because a grand jury can take it upon itself to investigate wrongdoing. Citizens can approach grand juries directly, bypassing the court and county prosecutors. In other words, grand juries have the authority to convene and investigate criminal activity on their own, or at the request of private citizens. It is one of the few express authorities that exist for citizens to hold public employees and elected officials accountable for corruption and misconduct.
If grand juries were active and engaged across America, they could investigate the little-known "highway interdictions" that have seized $2.5 billion in cash from more than 60,000 people without indictments or warrants since 2001 (RCReader.com/y/jury4).
Perhaps that is why it is difficult to know who the grand jurors are in many communities. Until recently, citizens in Scott County were forced to go through the county attorney for access. This was completely unlawful, as we have the right to access the grand jury on our own, without permission from the court. And the grand jury has every duty to review allegations brought before it.
After last year's Scott County Grand Jury was selected, residents requested the list of jurors. Seventh Judiciary Chief Justice Marlita Greve refused to provide it until the Iowa Attorney General's office affirmed the protection of disclosure upon request (RCReader.com/y/jury5): "Iowa Code Section 22.1 ... . The computer-generated grand-jury list, juror addresses, and phone numbers are a 'public record' under this definition. Every person has the right to examine, copy, publish, or disseminate a public record." In addition: "Iowa Code Section 22.3 (1) does not require a person inspecting such records to be physically present when doing so, and allows a request to be submitted in writing, by telephone, or by electronic means."
The grand jury's responsibility to inspect the county's places of confinement is a scheduled event that normally occurs within 48 hours of swearing in the jurors, allowing jailers plenty of preparation time - eliminating any element of surprise or spontaneity. It is the first and last inspection of the year and controlled by the court, rather than the grand jury as originally intended.
The county attorney's annual orientation indicates marginalization of the grand jury's service, noting that grand juries are rarely convened anymore, sometimes never during a year, and only if the case is controversial in some way. Otherwise, the grand jury is a formality required by both the U.S. and Iowa constitutions, little more. A full transcript of the 2014 grand-jury empanelment proceedings can be read at RCReader.com/y/jury6.
This is a serious mischaracterization of grand juries because it does not inspire, nor does it adequately emphasize, the independence of grand juries in American jurisprudence and due process. Grand juries provide an essential element of judicial balance and protection for individuals accused of a crime. Due process is a cornerstone of America's republic under the rule of law. Grand juries can step in to ensure due process when prosecutors drop that ball, or when public officials abuse their power. Grand juries are the only venues that eject the fox from the hen house and therefore are essential safeguards of our liberty. The role of grand juries needs to be restored if we are to achieve actual justice. Without grand juries, all the power lies with the courts, leaving no viable remedy for those falsely or abusively accused.
It is time for Scott County residents to civically engage, versus politically. Attend the grand-jury empanelment, let the jurors know you support them, and let the watchers know we are watching. Request a copy of the 2015 grand-juror list and ensure this important information is publicly accessible. If we remove the destructive liberal-versus-conservative filter, dealing more directly with the issues minus all the political influence, we can evolve into people far more capable of contributing to real solutions for society's problems.