Federal Court: First Steps

The steps in a federal court case can be slightly different from the steps in a state court case. Understanding the difference can help you understand why you need a criminal defense lawyer to represent you. If you do not understand what is happening, you could make a mistake that results in a guilty conviction.

First Five Steps in a Federal Court Criminal Case

Each criminal case is different. However, five steps occur in each federal court criminal case.

1.  Investigation by Federal Authorities

Numerous federal agencies conduct investigations into criminal cases, including:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) – Investigates crimes such as public corruption, white-collar crimes, terrorism, cybercrimes, and organized crimes
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) – Investigates drug trafficking cases
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) – Investigates crimes including arson, bombings, and illegal trafficking of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms
  • Secret Service – Investigates financial cybercrimes and counterfeiting
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services – Investigates crimes committed on national parks, illegal hunting, and trade of protected animals
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Investigates environmental crimes
  • Department of Homeland Security – Investigates human rights violations, smuggling, and immigration and customs enforcement (commonly referred to as ICE)

Federal agencies utilize a variety of tools and resources to investigate cases. They may use wiretaps, video surveillance, search warrants, confidential informants, and personal interviews. Federal agencies often have access to resources beyond those which state and local law enforcement have when investigating a crime.

In some cases, a federal agency may take over a state or local law enforcement investigation. It is common for a federal agency to take over drug trafficking cases involving large amounts of drugs. Federal agencies may also take over conspiracy cases involving a complicated network of people.

Federal authorities can charge and arrest a person through a complaint or indictment. A complaint is a written statement, usually prepared by an agent of the investigating federal agency, which summarizes the alleged facts supporting charging a person with an offense. An arrest warrant may be issued based upon the allegations in the complaint.

2.  Charging – Grand Juries – Arrest

An arrest may be made in two ways. First, the written complaint by a federal agency may result in an arrest warrant. If so, the person is arrested and brought before a magistrate judge. The personal is formally charged at an arraignment, which is known as the first appearance. 

Second, if a U.S. attorney decides that there is enough evidence and information to charge a person with a crime, the attorney may present the case to a federal grand jury. A grand jury is an impartial group of individuals usually chosen from the community.

The jurors consider the evidence presented by the U.S. attorney. They must decide if there is enough evidence to believe that a crime has been committed. 

Grand juries have several powers they can use to perform their duty. They may issue subpoenas to people who they believe may have information about the case. The subpoena requires the person to appear and testify under oath before the grand jury. The grand jury may compel testimony, even from the alleged victim.

After hearing all evidence, the grand jury determines whether probable cause exists to issue an indictment. Probable cause is a reasonable belief that a crime was committed. If the grand jury decides there is probable cause that a specific individual committed a crime, it issues a formal charging document known as an indictment. 

An arrest warrant is issued based on the grand jury indictment. The person is arrested and taken into custody by a law enforcement agency, usually by the U.S. Marshall’s Office. The person is scheduled for their first appearance or arraignment, just as if the arrest warrant was obtained based on a complaint. 

3.  Arraignment

The arraignment or first appearance is held on the same day of the arrest or the next day. The hearing is held before a magistrate judge. The person receives a copy of the indictment. They are notified of their rights and may request the court appoint an attorney if they do not have private counsel.

The defendant enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. The issue of pretrial release or bail could be addressed at the arraignment. However, an attorney may advise his client that the question of bail wait until the detention hearing. 

The detention hearing is held within 48 hours after the arraignment. An attorney can use the additional two days to prepare an argument for pretrial release. Having additional time to prepare an argument is almost always beneficial to the defendant. 

In either case, it is best to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney before this stage. You need an attorney to ensure your legal rights are protected and you present the best possible argument for pretrial release.

4.  Detention Hearing

A detention hearing is also referred to as a bond or bail hearing. In most cases, the detention hearing is held within two days of the arraignment. The purpose of the detention hearing is to decide if the defendant can be released pending trial.

The judge considers various factors when deciding whether a defendant should remain in jail or can be released pending the trial. 

Factors that the judge might consider include:

  • The length of time the person has lived in the area
  • Whether family lives nearby 
  • The defendant’s ties to the community
  • The defendant’s employment situation
  • Whether the defendant has a criminal history
  • The nature of the criminal charges against the defendant

A criminal defense attorney gathers the above information. He develops a convincing argument to present to the judge that gives the defendant the best chance of receiving pretrial release. 

A skilled attorney understands how to develop an argument that overcomes statutory presumptions for detention. In some cases, the attorney may argue that home detention is sufficient if the judge appears to be leaning toward keeping the person in jail.

5.  Preliminary Hearing

Once a defendant enters a plea of not guilty, a preliminary hearing may be scheduled. The government must enter enough evidence at the preliminary hearing to justify proceeding with the criminal charges against the defendant. 

Preliminary hearings are not required in federal court cases. A preliminary hearing may not benefit a defendant. An attorney may recommend waiving the preliminary hearing if it is not in the client’s best interest. 

If the defendant requests a preliminary hearing, it must be held within 14 days of the initial appearance if they are being held in jail. If the defendant was released on bail or bond, the preliminary hearing must be held within 21 days of the initial appearance. 

Preliminary hearings are like mini-trials. The prosecution introduces evidence and calls witnesses. The defense can cross-examine the witnesses. However, the same rules of evidence do not apply in preliminary hearings. For example, a defendant cannot object to hearsay at a preliminary hearing.

After hearing the evidence, the judge decides whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed. If the judge finds probable cause, a status conference or trial is scheduled. If the judge finds that the evidence does not establish probable cause, the charges against the defendant can be dismissed.

Contact Our Kentucky Criminal Defense Lawyer for a Free Consultation 

Federal criminal cases can be incredibly complicated. The penalties for a conviction can be severe. If you are charged with a federal crime, you need an experienced Kentucky criminal defense lawyer to handle your case.

Call now to request a free consultation with one of our lawyers to discuss your case.