How Federal Criminal Cases Work

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How Federal Criminal Cases Work

Brian Kuester
Attorney Brian Kuester
Team Lead
Former US Attorney
Former District Attorney
Ellen Comley
Attorney Ellen Comley
Defense Team Lead
Senior Counsel
Roger Bach
Roger Bach
Team Consultant
Former Special Agent (OIG)

If you find yourself charged with a federal crime, the process can seem quite confusing and frightening. It always helps to have an experienced attorney by your side to walk you through it. Knowledge is also an important component in making it through this stressful time.

The Federal Criminal Case Process Explained

Important Steps in the Federal Criminal Process

Each Federal criminal case is different, but they each contain similar steps.

  • Investigation

A federal criminal charge is always preceded by an initial investigation. Common federal agencies used to investigate crimes include:

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
United States Secret Service (USSS)
Homeland Security Investigation (DHS/HSI)

These agencies work to obtain evidence that will assist prosecutors in making their case. Often, the first part of an investigation will involve a search warrant. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution usually requires that police officers have probable cause before they search a person’s home, their clothing, car, or other property.

If the police already have probable cause to arrest a suspect, they will go ahead and do so at that time.

  • Charging

All federal felony charges must be presented to a federal grand jury, which will determine whether charges should be made against an individual. Federal prosecutors present all evidence to the grand jury, which will determine whether to issue an indictment. An indictment contains the basic information that informs the person of the charges against him.

  • Initial Hearing/Arraignment

After a person is arrested and charged, they are brought before a magistrate judge for a pre-trial hearing. At this point, the charged person (the “defendant”) will learn more about his or her rights and the charges against him or her. If applicable, arrangements are made for the defendant to have an attorney assigned. The judge will also decide at this time whether the defendant will be held in prison or released until trial.

During this pre-trial phase, the defendant will be asked to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges.

  • Discovery

During this phase of the process, both the prosecutor and defense attorneys gather more information. This can include interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents and other evidence. The prosecutor has an ongoing duty to provide copies of all materials and evidence that the prosecution intends to use at trial, including any exculpatory evidence that may show the defendant’s innocence.

  • Plea Bargaining

If the government believes that it has a strong case, it may offer the defendant a plea deal to avoid trial and the possible risk of a lengthier sentence. If the defendant wishes to plead guilty and accept the deal, he or she must do so in open court in front of a judge, who will then determine how the defendant will be punished.

  • Preliminary Hearing

If the defendant does not accept a deal and enters a plea of not guilty, a preliminary hearing may be held, although, the defendant may choose to waive it.

If held, the preliminary hearing must occur within 14 days of the initial appearance if the defendant is being held in jail, or within 21 days if the defendant is out on bail.

It is at the preliminary hearing that the prosecutor must show enough evidence to charge the defendant. This evidence may be shown through witness testimony and the introduction of evidence. The defense attorney will be allowed to cross-examine any witnesses.

If the judge decides that there is no probable cause to believe that the defendant committed a crime, he will dismiss the charges. Otherwise, the trial will be scheduled.

  • Trial

During the trial, the prosecutor will call witnesses and present the evidence to support the government’s case. This is the time when the defendant, through his or her attorney, will get to tell their story using witnesses and evidence.

After all witnesses have been heard and all evidence has been presented, the judge will inform the jury of the appropriate law and standards they must use to reach a verdict. After the jury reaches an agreement on the verdict, they notify the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant in open court. If the defendant is found not guilty, he or she is usually free to go home.

Defending Against Federal Crimes

There are many different routes that a defendant may take throughout the criminal process, all of which may have life-long consequences. At The Criminal Defense Firm, we can help you understand your situation and execute a comprehensive strategy for minimizing the consequences of your arrest.

Penalties Against Federal Crimes

If the defendant is found guilty of the charges, he or she will return to court to be sentenced. The judge must use certain legal guidelines in determining the sentence and may take certain mitigating factors into consideration.

Contact Us Today

Our firm is proud to have two former federal prosecutors and experienced defense counsel on our team to assist you. To schedule a free consultation, call 866-603-4540 or contact us online today to get the answers to your questions.

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