What Happens in a Federal Criminal Case?

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Most people outside of the federal justice system have no idea what really goes on during a criminal case. Our criminal defense attorneys and former federal prosecutors explain:

The Steps Involved in a Federal Criminal Prosecution


Most federal criminal cases start in obscurity. Law-enforcement agencies such as the FBI, the IRS, and the DEA begin investigations without the suspect’s knowledge. These investigations can last weeks, months, and sometimes even years before the U.S. Attorney’s Office decides to bring criminal charges.


Once prosecutors believe that the investigating agency has uncovered enough evidence to convince a judge to issue an arrest warrant, they will request the warrant in court. The judge will review the evidence and supporting affidavits from the investigating agents, and then decide whether there is probable cause to make an arrest. If so, the judge will issue the arrest warrant, and then law enforcement agents will then make the arrest and bring the suspect to a detention holding facility.

Pre-Trial Detention Hearing

The U.S. Constitution entitles every defendant to appear before a judge within a specific timeframe. In federal cases, this appearance takes place at an initial appearance hearing. During the initial appearance hearing, a magistrate judge determines whether the suspect must remain in custody can be released upon conditions (referred to as “bond”) pending trial.

Indictment or Information

At the initial appearance hearing, the suspect still has not yet officially been charged with a crime. That comes through either an indictment or information.

Indictments are issued by federal grand juries following confidential proceedings conducted in the suspect’s absence. If the grand jurors find it more probable than not that the suspect has committed a crime, the suspect (now called a defendant”) will be indicted which means that they have been officially and publicly accused of a crime. To avoid these proceedings, defense attorneys will often recommend that suspects waive their right to a grand jury and simply accept information that contains the same formal accusations.


Following the indictment or information, the defendant must appear at a hearing called an “arraignment.” During the arraignment, the defendant will hear from a judge that he or she has been formally charged with a crime. The defendant will be asked to enter a plea, and at this stage, most defendants plead (not guilty) since they have not yet seen the government’s evidence against them.


During the process known as “discovery,” the government must disclose its evidence to the defendant. This is often the defendant’s first opportunity to see what evidence exists and where it came from. In almost all cases, the defense counsel’s review of the evidence will result in a recommendation for the defendant to either go to trial or prepare to enter a plea.

Plea Bargaining & Re-Arraignment

In the vast majority of federal criminal cases, defendants plead guilty and do not go to trial. Sometimes, defense counsel and the prosecutor assigned to the case will negotiate a plea agreement that specifies the maximum punishment that the government will seek at sentencing. Other times, the defendant simply returns to court and enters a guilty plea in front of the judge.

Motions & Trial

If the government’s evidence isn’t solid and there is a question as to culpability, the case will proceed to trial. The attorneys for both sides may file motions to suppress certain evidence, requests to disclose witness lists, inquiries into legal arguments, and other requests in order to prepare for trial. At trial, a jury consisting of twelve jurors will determine the facts, while a judge addresses all questions of law.

Federal Sentencing

If the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty at trial, the case continues to sentencing. The judge reviews the assigned U.S. probation officer’s sentencing recommendations and analyzes the case in light of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the applicable Constitutional constraints. The defendant and defense counsel have the opportunity to address the court prior to sentencing, as well.

Supervised Release

As part of the sentence, the judge may order a supervised release following a period of incarceration. Supervised release means that the defendant, although no longer incarcerated, must abide by certain conditions and restrictions while becoming reintegrated into society. The most common conditions and restrictions include a prohibition on violating any state or federal law, passing drug tests, and satisfying the terms of court-ordered probation.

Federal Appeals

Trial convictions and sentences based on pleas are both subject to appealable (though subject to differing limitations). In an appeal, the defendant asks the U.S. Court of Appeals to examine errors, as identified by defense counsel, that occurred during trial or sentencing. Some of the more common errors in federal criminal cases include Failure to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defendant, reliance on illegally-obtained evidence, and abuse of the judge’s sentencing discretion.

Have You Been Arrested for a Federal Offense? Contact The Criminal Defense Firm Today

The attorneys of the The Criminal Defense Firm represent defendants in federal criminal cases across the country. Our firm consists of experienced defense attorneys and former Department of Justice lawyers who have years of trial experience in federal court.
Whether you have been arrested, charged, or convicted, our team of attorneys will fight to protect your legal rights. For a free, confidential case evaluation, contact us online or call 866-603-4540 now.
This information has been prepared for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. This information may constitute attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Reading of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Prior results do not guarantee similar future outcomes. The Criminal Defense Firm is a Texas firm with headquarters in Dallas.

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