Federal Court Process

If you have been charged with a federal crime, the process is much different compared to state court. While below is a general outline of the general procedure regarding what could happen in a federal court, it is important that you contact a Criminal Lawyer who has experience with federal cases if you believe there is a potential of getting charged. There are time sensitive steps that a federal criminal defense lawyer can take to help you resolve the matter before formal charges are even filed.


Here are the general stages of a federal case.


Informal Charges:


Indictment, Arrest or Complaint:
Federal charges are often brought through an indictment, arrest or complaint. In order for an arrest to be made, they must have probable cause (with or without a warrant).


If a complaint is a document presented to a judge (or judicial officer) that describes the probable cause that causes the officers to believe that a federal offense has been committed. If the judicial officer believes that there is probable cause for an arrest, an arrest warrant is issued. If you are arrested without an arrest warrant, the complaint is brought infront of the magistrate at the defendants first court appearance.


The government may choose to bypass the complaint and arrest stage of this process entirely, by directly going to a grand jury and getting an indictment (explained later).


Pre-trial Interview:

Either by phone or in person (if arrested) an individual charged with a federal crime
may be contacted by the federal Pretrial Services Agency. The officer will attempt to obtain information about the defendant’s background. This information will be presented to a district judge or magistrate judge to assist
in making decisions related to pretrial detention, release on bond and pretrial supervision. The
officer will make a bond or detention recommendation to the judge. You are not required to speak with the officer from the federal Pretrial Services Agency without speaking with an attorney first, but if you do, you should be completely honest about your background (they should not be asking questions about the case).


First Appearance:
After an arrest, the government is required to take the defendant infront of a magistrate “without unnecessary delay”. The magistrate informs the defendant of charges, the right to counsel, among other things. The magistrate will address the question of release from custody on bond.


Detention Hearing:
If the District Attorney requests that the defendant be held without bail until trial, the defendant is entitled to a detention hearing to determine whether or not the defendant should be held without bail. It is usually held within three days of the First Appearance.


Preliminary Hearing:
You are entitled to a preliminary hearing within ten days of the initial federal court
appearance if he is in custody (or not later than twenty days if not in custody), unless the person
extends the hearing date, waives the hearing, or is indicted by a grand jury.


It is also possible that the magistrate finds that extraordinary circumstances exist, and that further delay is necessary in the “interest of justice”. Frequently, the preliminary hearing and the detention hearing are combined, and held at the same time.


Formal Charges:


Indictment and Information:
At some point in the process, sometimes before arrest (as mentioned above) but usually within three or four weeks
of arrest, the prosecutor will present evidence to a grand jury. Neither the defendant nor his lawyer
will usually be present. If the grand jury decides that there is enough evidence against the accused
to justify charging him with a crime, then the grand jury will issue a formal charging document,
called an indictment. This indictment will state the exact charge(s) against you.


Generally it is very easy to get an indictment from a grand jury. Defense lawyers have often coined the term “Ham Sandwich Rule” as it is said even a Ham Sandwich can get indicted


Sometimes, your lawyer may decide to waive the right to have a grand jury and permit the government to file an information. An information is also a charging document that has the same effect as an indictment, but charges are brought by way of information only if the accused consents.


After return of an indictment, the accused will be scheduled for an arraignment before a
District Court Judge or a U.S. Magistrate Judge. Here the charges are read, or the accused may waive the formal
reading, and the accused will be required to enter a plea to the charges. Generally the defendant will enter a plea of not guilty so that the attorney may have time to work on the case. At the arraignment or shortly thereafter, the court
(judge) will commonly set dates for discoverable evidence to be disclosed and for motions to be
filed, and set a date for trial.


Plea Agreement Or Trial:
A plea agreement is a joint recommendation by the prosecution and defense which
advises the judge that they believe the case should be disposed of in the manner outlined in the
agreement. The agreement is made a matter of record at the time of the guilty plea.


If a plea cannot be arranged, then the case will proceed to trial.


Obtaining a lawyer early in the federal criminal process can be extremely advantageous in working out a deal. Often times there is additional benefits and better plea agreements if a deal can be worked out before formal charges have been brought.


Our attorneys have extensive experience handling federal criminal defense matters. If you need a federal criminal defense attorney, call us.


The consultation is free, you have nothing to lose by calling but you may have a lot to lose by waiting. Call 248-956-1165.