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A Guide to the Federal Criminal Process

Federal Criminal Process

Facing criminal charges at the federal level is certainly overwhelming. The federal criminal process is different from facing criminal charges in a state courtroom and typically leads to more severe penalties.

Unfortunately, many people are unaware of how the federal criminal process works. However, it’s important to understand your rights to help you make a more informed decision and what options you have available to you.

We’re going to provide common steps you can expect in a federal criminal case. If you’re facing criminal charges, it’s always best to discuss the case with an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer. Read on to learn more about the general process.

Step 1: Investigation

In the investigation phase, a person is suspected of committing a federal crime. There are hundreds of agencies by the federal government nationwide that may investigate potential crimes. Some agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DHS), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Keep in mind that investigations may take years. In some instances, the defendant may not realize that they are being investigated. Once the agency has gathered enough evidence against the defendant to support their suspicions of criminal activity, the case may be referred to prosecutors or potential charges.

Step 2: Grand Jury Indictment and Charges

The next step is for prosecutors to decide whether they want to charge the defendant with a crime. However, felony offenses at the federal level must be charged by an indictment.

An indictment is a formal notice by a Grand Jury, which includes a group of up to 23 impartial citizens. Once the Grand Jury examines the evidence and hears from the prosecutor and witnesses, the jury will cast a secret vote to decide whether they believe there is sufficient evidence to validate the charges.

To indict the defendant, there must be at least 12 grand jurors who agree that the defendant is guilty of the charges. After the indictment, the defendant will need to retain a lawyer. Or, they can be assigned a public defender if the defendant cannot afford a lawyer on their own.

Note: Federal misdemeanors don’t need a formal indictment for a defendant to get charged. These can be charged with the help of a less formal document known as information or complaint.

Step 3: Arraignment/Initial Hearing

Immediately after a defendant is indicted, they are brought into custody. The defendant will attend an initial hearing and arraignment. The defendant will be informed of the charges against them and asked to enter a guilty or not guilty plea.

It’s also important to note that bail terms may also be determined at the hearing. However, bail is not always allotted in some criminal cases. Since most federal indictments are considered serious felony crimes, judges will often deny a bond. This is usually if the defendant has been labeled a flight risk or a danger to the community.

The bail hearing will determine whether granting bail is justified by exploring a few other crucial questions, such as whether:

  • The defendant made any threats to witnesses
  • The defendant has a local family
  • The defendant has an extensive criminal history

Step 4: Preliminary Hearing

Federal Criminal Process

If the defendant has pleaded not guilty and has not agreed to a plea bargain, a preliminary hearing could be held. During the preliminary hearing, a judge will receive the evidence presented by prosecutors and decide whether it is enough evidence to warrant a trial.

Note: The preliminary hearing must occur within 14 days of the initial arraignment if the defendant is held in jail or 21 days for defendants not in custody. This is unless the defendant has waived the hearing in writing.

Some of the evidence that will be presented at the hearing include:

  • Government witness testimony
  • Documents
  • Physical evidence

During the preliminary hearing, the defense’s legal counsel has the right to cross-examine witnesses to ensure all testimonies are accurate and credible. Once the preliminary hearing is over, the judge will decide if there is enough probable cause to take the case to trial or whether the charges should be dismissed if there is a lack of evidence.

Step 5: Discovery Period

During the discovery phase, the prosecution and the defense must exchange evidence they plan to use in court. This ensures that each side is prepared for trial. The discovery period is a significant part of the federal criminal process and is especially important for the defendant and defense attorney.

This is because it lets the defendant and attorney know how strong the prosecution case is against the defendant. Additionally, it enables the defendant and the attorney to prepare a stronger defense for a better outcome.

It’s important to note that the trial process is often long and complex. There are several steps that must be completed, starting with the prosecutors thoroughly reviewing details of the crime and the defendant’s history. This is also the same method that the defense counsel uses to prepare for trial.

Note: Prosecutors will seek evidence to support a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In contrast, the defense lawyer will seek to prove the defendant’s innocence.

One of the most important aspects of the discovery phase is speaking to witnesses. Three types of witnesses in a federal criminal case include:

  • Expert witness: provide specialized information from experience or education in a specific area
  • Character witness: often knows the victim or defendant and provides information about their character
  • Lay witness: someone who witnessed a crucial event related to the crime and will describe what they saw

Step 6: Plea Bargain

Most federal criminal cases go to trial since most defendants and prosecutors work out plea bargains. A plea bargain involves the defendant agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for leniency or reduced charges.

Note: Plea bargaining can occur at any time throughout the pre-trial process, but most often occur during the discovery phase.

Step 7: Pre-Trial Motions

Filing or responding to a motion is one of the last steps in a criminal case.  Pre-trial motions are written documents filed by defense attorneys that challenge the legality of certain aspects of the criminal case.  The most common motions include:

  • Motion to suppress: an effort to make certain evidence inadmissible, usually because it was obtained in a way that violated the defendant’s constitutional rights.
  • Motion to dismiss: a request to dismiss a specific charge or the entire case when there is insufficient evidence.
  • Motion to compel: is used when the prosecutor does not share essential information that could help a defendant’s case.

Step 8: Federal Trial

If negotiations do not result in a plea agreement, you will need to proceed to trial where both sides present their arguments in front of a jury. The prosecution and defense attorney are involved with choosing a jury that includes members of the public.

Choosing a Defense Attorney for a Federal Criminal Charge

Once a defendant is found guilty, there will be several events to follow before the sentencing hearing. Before sentencing, both sides will have an opportunity to file motions. The sentencing phase will determine penalties based on applicable laws.

If you’re facing a federal criminal charge, having a skilled and aggressive defense attorney to represent you during your trial is crucial. At Meltzer & Bell, P.A. we are a South Florida Criminal & DUI Trial lawyer with over 500 combined jury trials through verdicts. If you would like to discuss your case, contact us for a free consultation.

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