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How the indictment process for Plains All American works - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

How the indictment process for Plains All American works

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Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for spilling more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil on the California coast last year, has been indicted on 46 criminal charges.

KSBY spoke to an attorney to explain how and why an indictment is sought in certain cases.

"In California, if someone is charged with a felony, there has to be a determination of probable cause before it can go to trial," said Lee Cunningham, Assistant District Attorney for San Luis Obispo County.

A prosecutor has two choices in doing that: either presenting the evidence before a judge or going to a Grand Jury.

In the Plains All American case, a Grand Jury of 19 people was selected.

"Typically, they (the jury) show up for jury duty not knowing whether they are going to be a trial juror or a grand juror," said Cunningham.

A Grand Jury differs from a trial jury. In a Grand Jury, there is no judge and no lawyers, just the prosecutor presenting the evidence.

So why would a prosecutor choose the Grand Jury route?

"One of the reasons -- if there was a need for secrecy, because a Grand Jury proceedings are secret," said Cunningham.

This secrecy serves two purposes:
1) It encourages witnesses to speak freely without fear of retaliation.
2) It protects the potential defendant's reputation had there not been enough evidence for a trial.
 
In the case against Plains All American, a majority of the 19 people on the Grand Jury determined there was enough evidence to bring these charges to court.

"It still remains to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but someone has made the determination that there's at least probable cause," said Cunningham.

Here's what happens next: Plains All American will have an arraignment. There, they'll have a choice to make a plea bargain or take these charges to trial.

Arraignment has been set for June 2. Plains All American said in a statement it will defend itself against the charges.  

Related coverage:
Plains All American Pipeline facing criminal charges in connection to oil spill

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