The primary function of the grand jury is to examine all aspects of local government, ensuring that the county is being governed honestly and efficiently and that county monies are being handled judiciously.
A grand jury is a body of the required number of persons (19 in San Luis Obispo County) returned from the citizens of the county before a court of competent jurisdiction and sworn to inquire of public offenses committed or triable within the county.
Each grand jury is charged and sworn to investigate or inquire into county matters of civil concern. [Penal Code Section (PC) § 888]
The following oath shall be taken by each member of the grand jury: I do solemnly swear (affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the State of California, and all laws made pursuant to and in conformity therewith, will diligently inquire into, and true presentment make, of all public offenses against the people of this state, committed or triable within this county, of which the grand jury shall have or can obtain legal evidence. Further, I will not disclose any evidence brought before the grand jury, nor anything which I or any other grand juror may say, nor the manner in which I or any other grand juror may have voted on any matter before the grand jury. I will keep the charge that may be given to me by the court. [PC§911 & §924.1]
Many historians trace the origin of the grand jury to the time of the Norman conquest of England. There is evidence that the courts of that time summoned a body of sworn neighbors to put before the court crimes which had come to their knowledge. During the reign of Henry II (1154-1189) the Assize of Clarendon (1166) established the "jury of presentment"of twelve "good and lawful men" assembled to reveal the names of those suspected of crimes.
The connection to our present grand jury system is clear. It was also during the reign of Henry II that juries divided into two types: civil and criminal, with the development of each influencing the other. The Massachusetts Bay Colony impaneled the first grand jury on our soil in 1635 to consider cases of murder, robbery and wife beating. By the end of the colonial period, the grand jury had become an important adjunct of government: "they proposed new laws, protested against abuses in government, and wielded tremendous authority in their power to determine who should and should not face trial."
Originally, the Constitution of the United States made no provision for a grand jury. But the Fifth Amendment ratified in 1791, guaranteed that " ... no person shall be held to answer to a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia when in actual service in time of war or public danger ... ." The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) made it illegal to deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Early California grand juries investigated local prisons, conducted audits of county books, and pursued matters of community interest.
Under statues passed in 1880 the duties of the grand jury extended to investigation of county government. Only in seven other states do grand juries investigate county government beyond cases of alleged misconduct on the part of public officials. The County of San Luis Obispo impanels a civil grand jury every year. Its term coincides with the county's fiscal year, July 1st-June 30th. Its jurisdiction extends to all government entities in the County except those under state and federal authority. Superior Court judges recommend candidates from among those who volunteer for service.
A drawing of nineteen jurors and eleven alternates then ensues. A superior court judge swears in the jurors. The objective of this process is a grand jury of qualified citizens prepared to donate the time required to do a successful job. The function of the grand jury is primarily that of a watchdog, ensuring that local government is performing with efficiency, impartiality, honesty, and for the benefit of the community.
The citizens of the County of San Luis Obispo have a real asset in the grand jury. It provides them important information on how their county and local governments are conducting the peoples' business. For the members of the jury the work is difficult and time-consuming, but in the end, quite satisfying.
Civil vs. Criminal Grand Jury?
There is no such thing in California law as a "civil" grand jury. California has historically had only "regular" grand juries and every county is required by the California Constitution to have one every year.
The regular grand juries have always had two different functions: criminal and civil. One function, the criminal one, is to hear evidence to determine whether in the grand jury's view it is sufficient to warrant making an accused stand trial. Typically the District Attorney's office decides whom to accuse, on what charges and what evidence to bring to the attention of the grand jury. The District Attorney guides and advises the grand jury during its receipt of the evidence. The grand jury determines whether or not to issue an indictment. As discussed below, this indictment function has fallen into disuse in some, but not all, counties.
In addition to standard criminal indictment activity, potentially included within the criminal function is the obligation of every regular grand jury to investigate "willful or corrupt misconduct in office of public officers of every description within the county. Whether or not a grand jury's indictment function has fallen into disuse, this is a mandatory obligation and obviously may uncover criminal activity. The other function, the civil one, is to investigate local government agencies and officials to form a view as to whether they are acting properly. If a grand jury determines they are not, it has various options open to it.
The most frequently used option is the presentation of a report outlining the grand jury's findings and recommendations in the matter. Such reports are public and frequently attract media attention. They must be responded to in specific ways by the agencies or elected officials reported upon.
Except where an investigation is mandated, the grand jury in its sole discretion decides whether and what to investigate when performing its civil function. Depending on the nature and severity of any wrongdoing a grand jury finds in its investigations, it can, in addition to releasing a report, request the District Attorney to pursue the matter criminally, issue its own Accusation to start a court.'
[PC§§901: Standards of Judicial Administration §17(a) Cal. Const. Art. 1, Sec. 23.3; PC§919(c) Generally; PC§925-933.6; PC§933.05; and PC§919(b)]