David J. Celuch
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How the new grand jury law will affect criminal defense

Last year, Governor Kate Brown signed a new law into the state that’s been present throughout the rest of the country for quite some time. Senate Bill 505 will soon require grand juries in Oregon to be audio recorded.

These changes will have drastic effects on legal proceedings, as more prosecutors will now question if they want to pursue grand jury indictments or preliminary hearings. If you or a friend find yourself facing potential charges in the near future, it is important to know the difference between these two hearings and how the new law can affect your case.

Grand jury vs. Preliminary hearings

Before the law change, prosecutors typically went with grand jury proceedings, which means that there is no cross-examination of the witnesses, no defense attorney present and only a select number of members of the jury are involved. They prefer taking felony cases through this system because it is quicker, costs less money and places the defense attorneys at a disadvantage since they were not there to see the testimonies. The witnesses themselves might feel more relaxed not having an additional attorney there to question them.

Preliminary hearings are open to the public, include the defense attorney to cross-examine the witness and has the judge determine the verdict based on probable cause. Though this primarily benefits defense attorneys more, prosecutors can take advantage of any change in statements that could benefit their side. Grand juries are also more selective in what they accept, so aspects such as evidence and exhibits can serve a more sufficient purpose when they are in preliminary hearings.

What will change?

All counties in the state will soon require trained jurors to record grand jury hearings using audio equipment. While most of the recordings and transcripts will not be available to the public, they will be available to the defense attorneys. Because of this, more prosecutors are leaning towards preliminary hearings for felonies instead of grand juries.

No matter which process is chosen, the defense ultimately benefits from this law. More preliminary hearings will occur, which already provides defense attorneys with more options than a grand jury proceeding. If the grand jury still occurs, defense attorneys can now use recordings in the following trial to see if there are any contradictions in witness statements. This was an advantage prosecutors primarily had before, seeing as how they were there to witness the statements in person.

With the passing of this law, Louisiana is now the only state in the country that does not require grand juries to be recorded. While there is some opposition to this bill, Oregon is still aiming to put the prosecution and defense on a more even playing field by following the rest of the nation’s example. A local defense attorney is available for any further questions on the new law or any necessary legal assistance for a preliminary hearing.

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