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How The Federal System Works

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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.

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 to try to get information related to the investigation.

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.

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.

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 assist you and your attorney 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?

Negotiation with Federal Prosecutor

Is there other information that you need to do?  Is there more information that you need to look at?  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.

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.

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.  They can certainly go above or below the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, but they are instructed to consider those Guideline.

In fact, they must consider those Guidelines in formulating your 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 sol

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.  Defendant’s 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 weighs 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.

General Information:

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.

It has been our experience that the most common and effect form of investigative methods is the use of informants against wouldbe 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 often times 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 your charged with and your criminal history are all consideration 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 that State Criminal Defense in a number of important areas.

I highly recommend 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
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