Federal Criminal Case: The 9 Steps

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Nine Steps to Know about Your Federal Criminal Case

If you have been charged with a crime in Federal District Court (for example, Eastern District of Virginia or District for the District of Columbia), these are the 9 initial 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.

1. Investigation

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. This includes if you receive a “target letter” or similar request from the Office for the United States Attorney (federal prosecutors). Before replying to an Agency or the Prosecutor, contact our office. Individuals often make incriminating statements that are later used against them in this initial stage. Federal Agencies will also use search warrants to get more information about any alleged crimes. When the authorities think they have enough evidence, they move on to charging you for the alleged crime.

2. Charging

Sometimes 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 can be filed through a criminal information or indictment.

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. The judge will advise you of your charges listed in the criminal complaint or indictment, as well as your rights throughout this process. The judge will also ask you about who your are represented by. The Judge  will also determine whether you should be held or released until trial. If you are released, the Judge may impose a number of restrictive “conditions” that you are required to comply with upon you release. You will also likely have to be supervised.

4. Preliminary Hearing

Once you have entered a plea of not guilty, you have a right to a Preliminary Hearing. The Preliminary Hearing must be held within 14 days of the initial appearance if the defendant is being held in jail. If the defendant is out on bail, it must be scheduled within 21 days of the initial appearance. This is like a mini-trial. This hearing is for the prosecutor to show probable cause 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.

5. Discovery

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. Whether a plea agreement makes sense is entirely dependent on the specific facts of a case, the defenses, and the offer made by the prosecution.

7. Pretrial Motions

Pretrial Motions are an important process to protect your constitutional rights (such as your Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure) and it is an essential step to determing the evidence that will be introduced at trial (through a Motion in Limine). This process requires detailed review of discovery and discussion with the Client. 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 federal sentencing guidelines.

If you are going to a trial, the federal prosecutor will be required to prove the charges against you beyond a reasonable doubt in front of a judge or jury. Your defense team will be able to cross examine the government’s witnesses, and the defense will put on any evidence if chooses. This includes making the decision of whether the defendant will testify at trial.

If the judge or jury finds you not guilty, then the trial process is over. The Constitution’s Double Jeopardy clause protects you from being re-tried on the same offenses.

If you are found guitly on any count, then the Court will set a date for sentencing. The Court will also determine whether your pre-trial release conditions need to be modified. For example, some charges require that the Court remand you to custody following a guilty finding. It is important to plan for every contingency with your Counsel prior to trial.

9. Sentencing

If you are found guilty, you will be brought back into court after a few months for sentencing (often 90 days or more). Prior to sentencing, the judge will order a presentence investigation report. Based on your crime, your criminal history, and the impact of the crime, and a number of other statutory factors, probation will calculate the recommended sentencing guidelines for the court. 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.

At the end of the sentencing hearing, the court will announce the sentence. This generally goes into effect immediately, though there are some exceptions.

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