9 Steps in a Federal Criminal Case
If you have been charged with a crime in Federal Court, these are the 9 steps you need to know about. Depending on what you have been charged with, some of these steps might not apply to your case. Federal criminal cases tend to move faster than state criminal cases so it is important that you understand the importance of each step and where you are in the process to fully exercise your right to a good defense.
The investigation phase is when agencies such as the FBI, ATF, or DEA are conducting their investigation into any alleged crime committed by you. If you are contacted by any government agency that claims they are investigating you, call a federal criminal defense attorney right away. Do not make any statements as they can be used against you. This step could save you time and money down the road. Often times, agencies will utilize methods such as search warrants to get more information about any alleged crimes. It can be preventable if you contact an attorney right away. When the authorities think they have enough evidence, they move on to charging you for the alleged crime.
Often times before charging a crime, prosecutors will send you a “target letter.” This letter will specify what type of crime they are alleging you have committed. They might ask for more information from you or try to contact you to see if a resolution can be worked out prior to a grand jury. This is a crucial step in your case. If you are contacted by prosecutor, get in touch with an attorney right away. An attorney can help advise you on whether you should cooperate with the prosecutor or send them information, and can try to get more information on their investigation for you. If you are able to do this prior to charges being filed, it can minimize the impact this may have on your life and career. If you are nonresponsive, charges will be filed through an indictment and you will either be arrested or given a court date on which to appear.
3. Initial Hearing or Arraignment
Usually either the day of your arrest or the day after, you will be brought before a magistrate judge for an initial hearing on your case. This is very similar to a state court arraignment. The judge will advise you of your charges listed in the criminal complaint as well as your rights throughout this process. He will also determine whether you should be held or released until trial. You will also be asked to plead guilty or not guilty at this hearing.
4. Preliminary Hearing
Once you have entered a plea of not guilty at your arraignment, the judge will often hold a preliminary hearing. This hearing is for the prosecutor to show that enough evidence exists to charge you with the alleged crime. Preliminary hearings are not required but are extremely helpful as this will be your first chance at learning about the government’s case against you. Your attorney can cross-examine any witnesses the prosecutors will put on. This will be your first chance to know the evidence against you and can be helpful in determining next steps in your case.
Discovery is all the evidence in your case. While it might not all be used at trial, this is the collection of reports, statements, physical evidence, expert reports, samples of fingerprints, and drug tests, that was collected throughout the investigation. This is not an exhaustive list and can vary depending on what type of crime you are alleged to have committed. Your attorney will be given copies of all the materials and evidence in your case that is in the prosecutor’s possession.
6. Plea Bargaining
After you have had a chance to review the discovery in your case, your attorney will sit down with you to discuss strengths and weaknesses of your case. If the prosecutor makes a plea offer, your attorney will advise you on its pros and cons depending on the evidence in discovery. This is a negotiation and your attorney will advise you on any potential counteroffers that can be made that might be beneficial to your life. If you choose to take a plea offer, your case will go to a plea hearing not a trial. If you reject the plea offer, you will be proceeding to trial.
7. Pretrial Motions
Our office is determined to ensure that your defense leaves no stone unturned. This often means making sure we are checking every possible defense, including whether certain statements or evidence can be suppressed. If we believe that there is a good argument for a pretrial motion, we would file those with the Court prior to your trial. Pretrial motions can change the trajectory of your case and it is important to have an experienced litigator look at your evidence to determine if any such legal issues exist. Common examples of pretrial motions are motions in limine (to keep out certain statements made by you or witnesses), motions to suppress (to suppress a piece of evidence), and motions to dismiss.
8. Trial or Plea
If you accept a plea offer, you will plead guilty in front of a judge in court. The prosecutors will read the facts of the case into the record and then set the matter out for sentencing. While prosecutors can make recommendations on a sentence, it is ultimately up to the judge to decide on a final sentence. It is important that your plea paperwork accurately reflects the facts of the case you are pleading guilty to as that can change your sentence calculation on the sentencing guidelines. If you are going to a trial, this will be the date that a jury or judge determines whether there is enough evidence to find you guilty of the alleged crime.
If you are found guilty, you will be brought back into court after a few months for sentencing. Prior to sentencing, the judge will order a presentence investigation report. Based on your crime, your criminal history, and the impact of the crime, probation will calculate sentencing guidelines which are recommendations to the judge. The judge can consider a number of mitigating factors such as your age, circumstances surrounding the crime, as well as participation. It is imperative that you have an experienced criminal defense attorney help you navigate this process.