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Trump indicted: What is an indictment? Here's everything you need to know

The indictment is one of several legal issues Trump faces, including an investigation by the Atlanta DA and a federal special counsel probe

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Donald Trump made US history when he became the first former president indicted on criminal charges on Thursday. Prosecutors working for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg have been building a case about hush money payments made by Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, to former porn star Stormy Daniels. Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 during the 2016 presidential campaign to buy her silence about her claims that she had an affair with Trump a decade earlier.

While Trump will be fingerprinted and have his mug-shot taken, he probably won’t be paraded before cameras in handcuffs or placed in a holding cell, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg earlier this month. He’ll likely remain in the custody of the Secret Service agents assigned to his protection detail.

The indictment is one of several legal issues Trump faces, including an investigation by the Atlanta DA and a federal special counsel probe. 

Here’s a legal breakdown of what an indictment is and what may follow for Trump:

What is an indictment?
An indictment is a charging document presented to a court that accuses one or more people of crimes. Indictments spell out who is charged, what charges they face and how they allegedly broke the law. Every defendant in the US is presumed innocent until their guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt. To secure a conviction, prosecutors must prove all the elements of a crime.

Trump’s lawyer says he was informed of the charges and pledged to “swiftly and aggressively” fight them. The details of what counts Trump faces aren’t public yet because the indictment is still under seal. 

Does someone who is indicted get arrested?
Someone may be indicted after they’re arrested, which is often the case in murders and other violent crimes. After an indictment, a defendant may be arrested or can surrender to authorities. They are then fingerprinted and photographed. They’re informed that they have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. They may or may not be handcuffed, depending on the crime.

A spokesperson for the Manhattan DA’s office said that Donald Trump’s attorney was contacted on Thursday evening to coordinate his surrender for arraignment.

Will Trump do a perp walk?
In some notorious cases, the accused may also have to endure a so-called perp walk, in which a suspect is publicly paraded in handcuffs. Trump isn’t expected to face that — his lawyer Joseph Tacopina said earlier this month the former president would surrender to authorities if he’s indicted. 

Who issues an indictment?
In New York, as many as 23 citizens known as a grand jury votes on an indictment. Grand jurors are an investigative body who meet in secret to consider evidence and hear testimony from witnesses without potential defendants being present. Prosecutors question witnesses, but grand jurors can ask questions as well. Grand jurors will indict if they believe prosecutors presented sufficient evidence.

Cohen testified before the grand jury considering charges against Trump, and other witnesses involved in the hush money transaction appeared as well. In New York state, prosecutors typically offer potential defendants a chance to testify. Trump declined that offer. Robert Costello, a lawyer who said he once advised Cohen, said he testified Monday as a rebuttal witness for the defense.

What happens after an indictment?
A defendant facing felony charges in New York must appear before a state supreme court judge for arraignment. At that hearing, the judge reads the charges and the defendant enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. In New York cases, defendants like Trump are released without having to post bail, unless they’re accused of a violent crime. The judge will set dates for future hearings to resolve disputes about the law, the evidence or the witnesses. 

The Trump grand jury investigation in Manhattan is being overseen by Juan Merchan, the same New York State Supreme Court judge who handled the tax-fraud prosecution of Trump’s longtime chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg and the tax fraud trial of the former president’s two companies

Does an indictment mean prison time?

No, an indictment only starts the process of determining whether someone is guilty. A defendant may also resolve a case by pleading guilty and admitting to their crimes. But defendants who want to contest the charges can go to trial before a judge or a jury. Sometimes, a judge will dismiss an indictment or some parts of it before the case reaches trial.

If a defendant is found guilty by trial or plea, they are given a sentence by a judge, often to a term of imprisonment if they’re convicted of a felony.  

What charges could Donald Trump face?

Legal experts believe that Trump is likely to face charges related to the falsification of business records. For such a charge to be a felony under New York law, it must also relate to a second underlying crime. That crime could relate to campaign finance violations.

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First Published: Mar 31 2023 | 7:11 AM IST

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