Criminal cases allegedly violating federal laws must be handled in federal district court, such as drug offenses, mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, healthcare fraud, and conspiracy. Federal prosecutors could pursue criminal charges on an individual or an entity.
Most federal criminal cases begin discreetly. The primary law enforcement agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Often, criminal investigations take several months to complete and sometimes years in a large-scale fraud case. The decision to prosecute a case is made by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).
Suppose federal agents have gathered enough evidence to obtain an arrest warrant. In that case, they will present the evidence to a federal prosecutor, asking a judge to issue an arrest warrant. The judge will first examine the evidence and affidavits from the agents to decide whether there is sufficient probable cause.
After the warrant has been issued, agents will make the arrest and take the defendant to a detention holding facility, where a pretrial service officer will interview them to prepare for the bail hearing. There are many factors that could lead to a bail denial.
The United States Constitution requires that all defendants be brought before a federal judge within a specific time frame for an initial hearing. The judge must decide whether a defendant will remain in custody or be released with conditions based on the recommendations of the pretrial service officer. If a defendant cannot afford a private criminal defense lawyer, the court will appoint one.
Most people are not familiar with the process of a federal criminal case, as most crimes are handled in local state courts. However, the federal government investigates and prosecutes any alleged violations of federal laws. A conviction typically carries harsher penalties than state crimes, and since Congress eliminated parole for defendants convicted of federal crimes, most will serve their full federal prison term.
What is a Federal Offense?
Simply put, a federal crime is any behavior that violates federal legislation. The federal government has jurisdiction over crimes involving a federal agency or property or crosses state lines or international borders. Some of the common federal offenses include the following:
- Drug Offenses;
- Drug Conspiracy;
- Drug Trafficking;
- RICO Cases;
- Fraud Offenses;
- White Collar Crimes;
- Wire Fraud;
- False Statements;
- Internet Crimes;
- Money Laundering;
- Sex Crimes;
- Violent Crimes;
- Weapons Offenses.
The federal criminal justice system is far different from the state. The penalties, including a federal prison sentence, are typically more severe if convicted.
What Are the Stages of the Federal Criminal Process?
One of the most important things you should know is that the federal court process is far different from the state court process. Some of the crucial steps are discussed below:
- Indictment - A federal grand jury issues an indictment in a secret confidential proceeding after they decide that there is probable cause someone committed a federal crime.
- Arraignment - The arraignment occurs with the indictment and information where the defendant must appear. The judge will tell them they have been charged with a federal crime. In most cases, the defendant will plead “not guilty” because they have not yet seen all of the evidence gathered by the government to make a decision.
- Discovery - The government must disclose its evidence to the defendant through a process known as discovery. After a review of all the evidence, a defendant and their defense lawyer will decide whether to take the case to a trial or negotiate a plea agreement with the prosecution.
- Plea bargaining - In most federal criminal cases, defendants will decide to plead guilty after a review of the discovery in exchange for a plea agreement, which will have lesser penalties than a conviction at trial and the maximum federal sentence.
- Motions and Trial – If the case can't be resolved, it will proceed to a federal trial. Motion to suppress evidence and other motions are common when preparing for a trial. A federal judge will preside over the trial, and there are 12 jurors to determine guilt or innocence.
- Federal Sentencing – If a defendant pleads or is found guilty at trial, the judge will review the sentencing recommendations by the U.S. probation officer and the federal sentencing guidelines. They will also use judicial discretion to determine an appropriate federal prison sentence. The judge may order a period of supervised release after their sentence is served.
- Federal Appeal – An appeal is to ask the United States Court of Appeals to review the case and examine alleged errors that could have impacted the outcome.
What Will Happen Next?
The federal court process can be complex, and your first step is to retain an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer. You may have learned that you are under investigation by the federal government because you received a target letter, or federal agents may have shown up at your home with a search warrant.
If federal agents arrest you, you must appear before a magistrate judge, who will consider the nature and circumstances of the federal crime you are accused of and determine whether you will be detained or released pending a criminal trial.
If a grand jury indicted you, they decided there was probable cause to believe you committed a crime violating federal law. Your case will go to trial unless your defense lawyer negotiates a plea deal with the federal prosecutor.
Suppose you were convicted of a federal crime or plead guilty. In that case, your case will go to sentencing, which is complicated and guided by the sentencing guidelines that give federal judges recommendations. You can appeal the conviction if convicted of a federal crime at trial.
What Steps Should You Take?
Suppose you are facing a criminal investigation or a federal criminal charge. In that case, you must find a federal defense lawyer as soon as possible to have the best chance of a favorable outcome. In many federal cases, the government will investigate alleged criminal activity for months or even years before making an arrest and filing charges.
This means they typically have solid cases and can convict. Below are some crucial facts to remember:
- You should always exercise your right to remain silent and not answer questions in any interview or interrogation with federal agents without your attorney present. Anything you say to federal agents or investigators can be used against you.
- Depending on your case's details, cooperating with the authorities might be beneficial. For example, suppose you are accused of violating federal law, and the prosecutor has enough evidence to convict you. In that case, you might be able to exchange that information for a reduced sentence as part of a plea deal.
- The most crucial decision is whether to go to trial or negotiate a plea deal with the federal prosecutor. A plea deal can minimize your penalties, but it means you would plead guilty to the federal crime and would likely spend at least some time in prison.
Contact a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer
As noted, the best advice for anyone facing federal criminal charges is to consult a federal defense attorney immediately. The federal criminal justice system has rules, procedures, codes, case law, and courtroom practices.
Your lawyer must know the pros and cons of pleading guilty and going to trial. They must be able to advise you of the best option for your unique situation.
If a plea agreement is not in your best interest, they must be prepared to take your case to trial. Your lawyer must know how to navigate the federal system and should have a good reputation with the federal officials handling your charge.
You have much at stake, and making bad decisions from the start could impact the case outcome. Let your lawyer make the decisions, as they can help you navigate federal procedures to achieve the best possible result. The Hedding Law Firm serves clients in California and throughout the United States. We are located in Los Angeles, CA.