How The Federal System Works

Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers


When it comes to defending a Federal Criminal case in Los Angeles or elsewhere in the federal system, it is important to realize that cases are dealt with differently than in the State Court Criminal Justice system. 

How federal criminal cases are investigated, filed, prosecuted and sentenced is something that should only be dealt with by a seasoned federal criminal attorney.

The law enforcement agencies associated with the federal system are sophisticated, well funded and extremely thorough in how they investigate and prosecute federal criminal defendants.  Below, we discuss the various stages of federal criminal cases.

Investigation of Federal Criminal Cases

There are a number of law enforcement agencies that investigate federal criminal cases (the Federal Bureau of Investigations–FBI, The Drug Enforcement Agency–DEA, The Department of Homeland Security and a number of others.  Sometimes state law enforcement agencies assist in these investigations as well. A target letter is how a federal law enforcement agency informs you that you are a “target” for criminal prosecution.

Federal is a unique situation because the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are uniform across the United States, so every single state that has a federal court where cases are filed in the criminal courtrooms, they use the same sentencing memoranda and basically the same sentencing guidelines. 

Basically, it's the same formula as far as what people get charged with and how sentences are figured out — the same prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, federal public defenders and other individuals associated with the federal system.

But when you start to talk about how the system works, you first probably have to start from an investigative standpoint — the FBI, secret service, homeland security, ICE — all sorts of different federal agencies will investigate various federal crimes and then when they're done with their investigation they will take the results from that investigation to the prosecutors. 

The prosecutors in the federal system are called Assistant United States Attorneys.

Sometimes the agent, if it's a sophisticated enough case and they need the help of the prosecutors who will get the prosecutors involved while they're investigating the case, and that way the prosecutors can help strategize what the investigation is going to be, what type of things are gong to be looked at, they'll help issue subpoenas and get a search warrant to try to get information related to the investigation.

If it is a drug offense, then it could be prosecuted by the drug enforcement agency. If it is some other offense, ICE could be involved, or the FBI, or even the Secret Service.

There is a certain branch of the federal government that deals with healthcare frauds. There is a branch that deals with fish and wildlife. If it has to do with firearms, there is a branch of the federal government for that. The federal government is powerful and far-reaching.

How Can I Know If I Am Being Investigated By The Federal Government?

If someone suspects that they might be investigated by the federal government, they should hire an attorney prior to the government contacting them.

That way, they can immediately tell federal agents that they have an attorney who has advised them against making any statements. This will allow for the individual to avoid making incriminating statements under the pressure of the federal government, whether it is the FBI, DEA, Homeland Security, or Secret Service.

An attorney will also be able to provide them with an idea of whether they may be charged with something and what they can do proactively before a case is filed.

During a federal investigation, an individual has the right to remain silent, the right to hire an attorney, and the right against illegal search and seizures. It is advised that anyone who is under investigation utilize their right to remain silent and hire an attorney to help guide them through the process.

Once appearing in federal court after an arrest, the probation department will assess whether the defendant is a flight risk or danger to the community and determine whether there is anyone who is willing to put up property or sign a signature bond for their release while waiting for their next court date.

If it is the best strategic move to make, the defense will make an argument as to why the defendant should be released on bond conditions. The federal system is not like the state system in that bail bondsmen are not used.

At an initial appearance in federal court, a defendant will be given an indictment, which will list the charges against them. The defendant will have to sign some paperwork designating their attorney and indicating to the court that they understand the charges being made against them.

Next, a judge will be assigned to the case, and the magistrate sitting in the court where the defendant will appear will set several court dates and determine whether they can be released on bond or remain in custody during the pendency of the case.

Surveillance, Warrants, Wire Taps, Searches

So, that's the first step when you're talking about a federal criminal case, is that investigation phase and the agents for the government — FBI and various other agencies — will do surveillances, get warrants, wire taps, they will search homes.  They will do whatever it takes to be able to figure out whether or not a crime has been committed.

Who's involved with the crime and who's going to be arrested and prosecuted?  When they're looking at somebody as a potential suspect in a crime, they call that person a target, and basically that means they think that person committed a crime or is involved with a crime and they're trying to prove that the individual is involved with a crime.

They will get together what's called a Grand Jury, where they basically get a jury together and they're going to decide whether there's enough information to file a federal case.  If there is, the person will be indicted and then they will be given their charges and they will end up being arrested and appearing in federal court.

They don't always have to be arrested.  Sometimes they can just come to federal court themselves. 

That's why it's so important to get a federal criminal defense attorney right away because they can help guide how things work, communicate with the agents, communicate with the prosecutors versus you being able to do that because they're not going to talk to you and if you do talk to them you're probably going to say something that incriminates yourself.

So, your attorney will act as your go-between or your buffer between the federal agents and prosecutor, and a lot of times can work out such things as how you're going to be released and various other things related to your federal criminal case. Federal Agents will frequently use confidential informants to assist them in an investigation.

I Was Just Arrested For A Federal Crime, What Happens Next?

You will be brought into court relatively quickly after being arrested for a federal crime. They will indict you and give you the indictment. You can either hire your own attorney or, if you qualify, they will appoint a federal public defender for you.

Once they tell you what the charges are, they will ask you your plea and then assign you one of the judges in the district where your case is pending. At the same time, they are going to decide whether you are to be detained or if you could be released on some sort of a condition, such as a signature bond or a property bond.

Once your bond is set, your judge is decided, and you have got your attorney, the case is going to move forward and the government is going to have to give your attorney all the discovery in the case. Typically, there is going to be a status conference at some point, where the judge is going to see what is going on with the case.

Ultimately, either some sort of a plea bargain is going to be offered to you or if you are innocent of the crime, the case will eventually be set for trial.

You are going to want to talk to your federal criminal defense attorney about whether or not it is wise to attempt to work with federal authorities in your case.

The federal government is set up so that if you cooperate with them and can provide substantial assistance, then you can gain huge benefits as it relates to your sentence and punishments. There is something called a 5k departure, where time can be shaved off your sentence for cooperation, even if there is a mandatory minimum.

Should I Cooperate With The Feds On My Federal Fraud Case?

It's typically not a good idea to cooperate with the Feds, especially without the presence of an attorney. This is because the Feds will use whatever information they can against a defendant. The decision to cooperate with the Feds should be made between a defendant and their attorney based on the defendant's best interests.

In order to protect their rights and the rights of their spouse, anyone who is being investigated for a federal fraud should contact an attorney. What type of crimes are considered fraud?

The bottom line is this: if someone's spouse has guilty knowledge of a crime that has occurred or has been complicit and aided and abetted in a fraudulent crime, then they will be charged with fraud. If, on the other hand, a spouse truly had no knowledge of the fraudulent activity, then they should not be charged with fraud, but they could benefit from having an attorney on their side.

If someone is convicted of a federal fraud crime that resulted in the loss of millions of dollars which they cannot afford to pay back, then they will likely go to prison for a significant amount of time. If the loss was not that great and they are able to pay it back, then a much stronger argument could be made for keeping them out of prison.

However, no federal criminal defense attorney will be able to guarantee that an individual who has been convicted of federal fraud will be able to avoid a prison sentence.

Ultimately, this will be a decision made by the sentencing judge based on the sentencing guidelines, the attorney's argument, the prosecutor's argument, and the probation department's recommendation to the sentencing judge.

A number of factors will determine the length of a potential sentence, including whether the defendant accepts responsibility for their actions, whether they have a prior criminal record, the amount of loss involved, and how many victims were involved. In every situation.

A seasoned federal criminal defense attorney will give a defendant the best chances of achieving the best outcome possible.

Charging Document and Bail

Once you're arrested you're going to be brought into federal court.  You'll be given the charging document and then it will be discussed whether you remain detained — which is in custody — or whether you can get out under such condition. 

Sometimes you can get out by what's called a signature bond where you agree to sign something or you get somebody else to sign something, basically saying that if you don't show up you will lose a certain amount of money if it's called a signature bond.

So, for example, you could sign a $25,000.00 signature bond, promising to appear and if you didn't appear then the government will be trying to collect that $25,000.00.

Another more secure bond would be what's called a property bond.  That's where you or somebody else puts up their property — you basically deed a part of the property over to the government.  For example, it's a $100,000.00 property bond, then if you didn't show up to court the government would be able to forfeit that house and get their $100,000.00.

There are other ways that you can be bonded out, but they don't usually involve a bail bondsman, so bail bondsmen are not applicable in the federal criminal system because they just simply don't use them.  The judge can also let you out on your own recognizance whether you don't have to put up any type of a bond.  You just have to promise to appear. The judge could also deny bail.

Enter Plea and Court Assignment

So, once your bail is dealt with, once you've been read all of your charges and you enter your plea, then most courts are going to assign you to the court where your case is going to be dealt with.  That will be your judge for the remainder of the case.

That judge will typically have rules and they'll be a status conference at some point.  The government will have to get all of the information — whether it be police reports, tape recordings — whatever it is that has to do with your evidence wise over to your attorney.  Your attorney will obviously review that information, go over it with you and then you and your attorney will decide the next moves in the case.

Will there be motions filed — search and seizure motions, various other motions, expert motions — or is it a case where the government has the information they need to be able to prosecute you and assist you and your attorney in talking about exactly what it's going to take to get you the best possible result in the case. 

Once you get past the decision as to what motions you may or may not file and once there's a discussion between you and your attorney, then you're going to have to decide what your next move is. A Daubert motion is an attempt to exclude the presentation of an expert's testimony in a trial.

Negotiation with Federal Prosecutor

Probably one of the first things you want to try to figure out is, it is the type of case where you're going to be negotiating with the government and trying to resolve things in a light most favorable to you or is it a case that you're trying to fight, file all of the motions you can, go to trial and show that you're innocent of whatever those charges may be.

Is there other information that you need to do?  Is there more information that you need to look at?  Perhaps there was a Miranda rights violation. Or are you going to enter into what's called pre-negotiations with the prosecutors?  This is where the prosecutors will send over a plea agreement. Suppose they request a proffer agreement.

Sometimes it's kind of a case in the middle.  You're going to do the best damage that you can to the government's case, and then once you're done with doing that damage, the next thing you're going to do is trying to negotiate with the government once you've weakened their case. 

So, this is obviously something your going to want to sit down and talk to your attorney about and make the decision that makes the most sense for you and your circumstances.

Once you've made that decision, once you've decided exactly how you're going to handle your federal criminal case, then obviously, you and your attorney are going to move forward and you're going to do everything possible to get the best possible result. In federal criminal cases, “discovery” is the process by which the prosecutor and defense lawyer obtain information from each other.

So, if you've seen some things in these interviews that touch on your case you're looking to hire a federal criminal defense attorney to help you or a loved one, pick up the phone.

The client and the attorney will sit down, talk about it, decide if it makes sense under the circumstances of your case, and if you sign the plea agreement you'll ultimately be in court, you'll enter your plea in front of the judge.  The judge will go over all of your constitutional rights and then set a sentencing date.

It's usually three or four months ahead depending on the court's schedule and then after the sentencing date is set, then the government will prepare their sentencing position papers.  The defense will prepare their sentencing position papers.

You'll probably have an interview in a meeting with the probation department.  They'll get all of your background information and then they will prepare a report for the judge.  Then ultimately you will appear.  You will be entitled to say something at your sentencing.  Your attorney will argue.

The government will argue.  The probation department will have their report and they may be asked questions by the judge. Then ultimately, the judge will hand down the sentence that he or she deems appropriate under the facts and circumstances of your case.

Give us a call.  I can do the meeting or the interview over the phone.  We can obviously have you come in face-to-face to sit down and talk about it, and a lot of these things I will do free of charge — give you what's called a free consultation where we talk about your case and see if I'm a right fit for you and if I can really actually help you with your federal criminal case.

Once you make the decision to hire myself, the Hedding Law Firm, I think you're going to feel a lot more comfortable about your situation, your circumstances, because now you're going to have somebody on your side who knows the federal criminal system.

Knows what it takes to be successful and is obviously going to have an eye towards helping you — protecting your record, your rights, your freedom — all of the things that you hold dear, and really trying to get you a result that makes sense under your case and puts you in the best position to get out of the federal criminal system as soon as possible.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

They are going to be guided by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which basically give them a range of a sentence as to what they can give you, which includes mandatory minimum sentences. They can certainly go above or below the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, but they are instructed to consider those guidelines. Your defense lawyer will prepare a sentencing memo.

In fact, they must consider those Guidelines in formulating their sentence.  So, that will be the end of your case.  You'll be sentenced.  You'll end up getting out on supervised release, and then ultimately, once you finish everything, you'll be done with your federal case.

Another route if you don't enter into a plea agreement with the government, would obviously be to go to trial.  Twelve jurors would have to find you either guilty or innocent, or it will be a hung jury where all of the jurors can't agree, in which case the government would have an opportunity to re-try you if they chose to do so.

Evidence would be put on the government because they would have the burden and would go first.  Your defense attorney would certainly get to cross-examine all of the witnesses in the federal criminal trial, and then when the government's case is done, the defense has a chance, if they wish, they don't have to, to put on a case — call in witnesses. 

The defendant can testify.  Defendants n a criminal case have an absolute right to testify, but they don't have to if they don't want to, and the jury can't hold it against them if they don't testify.

Jury Verdict

Then once the defense is done with their case, the government will get an opportunity to rebut the defense's case because of course, they have the burden.  The defendant is presumed innocent and the government must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt which is a very high standard in criminal defense.

Ultimately, the case will be given to the jury, and the jury will make the final decision as to whether or not the person is guilty or innocent.  If the person is found innocent, they will be let go  If they're found guilty, you go through the sentencing procedure again.

There's a probation report and both the defense and the prosecutor weigh in on what they think the sentence will be, but ultimately it will be up to the judge and the judge will be guided by what they saw at trial, of course, and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  They're going to look at your criminal history.  They're going to look at a whole host of factors related to your case and then they will make the final decision related to your federal criminal case.

So, if you're in the midst of a federal case, you or a loved one has been indicted or arrested by the feds, pick up the phone.  Make the call today so we can get the ball moving in the right direction related to your federal case.

The federal government and their law enforcement agents typically take their time in investigating potential criminal conduct.  They are much more detailed and meticulous than state agencies in their investigations.  They will take months and even years to investigate a case and make sure that they have sufficient evidence against a person before proceeding to arrest/indict them.

They will use much more sophisticated means to investigate than State authorities usually use.  For example, it is not uncommon to see wiretap evidence utilized in a federal criminal prosecution.  The feds also use various forms of surveillance. In some cases, we might file motions in federal court on your behalf.

It has been our experience that the most common and effect form of investigative methods is the use of informants against would-be defendants.  Because of the way the federal criminal sentencing scheme is set up…the use of informants has been the most effective tool the federal government has to capture other defendants in their broad-reaching net.

Federal criminal cases are prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs).  They strictly prosecute federal criminal crimes and oftentimes work hand in hand with federal law enforcement agencies in the investigative stages of a federal case.  They are attorneys that have been specially trained in the prosecution of federal crimes.

Sentencing in Federal Criminal Cases

One of the most important and complex areas of federal criminal defense is sentencing.  I can't tell you how often I receive phone calls from and meet with potential clients that give me a factual scenario and want to know exactly what their sentence will be.

There is a problem with this line of thinking…it does not work in federal criminal defense cases.  The best a seasoned federal criminal defense attorney is going to be able to give you is a range that you fall in, based on a long list of factors.

The federal sentencing guidelines, what you are charged with, and your criminal history are all considerations that will play into your sentence.  Some defendants are eligible for “safety valve” consideration and downward departures that can significantly reduce their sentence.  Federal criminal defense is much different from State Criminal Defense in a number of important areas.

How Long Does It Take To Resolve A Federal Case?

The length of a federal offense case will depend on the type of crime involved, the amount of discovery to be reviewed, the amount of time it takes to complete a thorough investigation, and whether the judge who is handling the case will make the attorneys move quickly.

An average case that does not involve an extensive investigation or several defendants will usually be resolved within about nine months, whereas more involved cases could take two years. In order for a defendant to get an idea of how long their case will take, they should discuss the details with an attorney who is familiar with the judge and prosecutors involved.

When dealing with a federal criminal case, one of the first things a defendant should do is sit down with their attorney and decide right from the beginning whether they want to accept a plea deal or fight the case. If they decide to accept a plea deal, they should allow their attorney to guide them through the plea process. The attorney will discuss the terms of the plea agreement with a federal prosecutor called the Assistant United States Attorney, and will review all aspects of it with the defendant so they can make an informed decision.

Once a defendant has been found guilty and sentenced by a judge, they will have the right to obtain an appellate lawyer who will review the case and make a decision as to whether there are any issues that can be litigated at the appellate level.

If a defendant accepts a plea agreement, then their ability to appeal will be severely limited by the stipulations within the plea agreement. In order to ensure that a defendant will be comfortable with the outcome of a case, it is crucial that they obtain an attorney who will be honest with them and explain all of the options.

When sentenced at the federal level, a defendant will usually have to serve 85 percent of that sentence.

However, if someone has a drug problem, then they may be able to enter a program called ARDAP, which can be used as a substitute for a portion of the sentence and provides assistance in dealing with the drug problem. In other cases, a defendant may be able to enter a halfway house in order to avoid serving a full prison sentence.

It is highly recommended that you call and set up a face-to-face consultation so you can really get a handle on what you are up against and hopefully begin the process of seizing your life back!


Ron Hedding
Lead Attorney
(213) 542-0994

Related Content: 

Contact Us Today

Hedding Law Firm is committed to answering your questions about Federal Criminal Defense issues in Los Angeles and Encino California. We'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.