How Does the Federal Criminal Process Work?
Steps in the Federal Criminal Process
The criminal process in the federal system is far from simple. If you have been arrested or learn that you’re under investigation for a crime, it’s in your best interests to understand the process you may be up against. While the criminal justice system is notoriously confusing and intimidating, having our experienced lawyer on your side can make your experience more bearable and efficient. However, we still encourage you to learn about key steps in the federal criminal process to better prepare for what may come.
- Investigation: Investigators from agencies like the FBI, DEA, DHS, etc. examine the crime and obtain evidence to help prosecutors understand the details of the case. Part of the investigation requires police to obtain a search warrant to legally enter and search a person and/or property. If an officer has probable cause to arrest someone, they will go ahead and do so.
- Charging: Once the prosecutor gathers enough information, they decide whether to present the case to the grand jury. If they do, then a person is indicted, meaning they are given formal notice containing the information about their criminal charges. In court, the grand jury then decides whether they believe that there’s enough evidence to charge the person with a crime.
After the defendant is charged, they can either hire an attorney or get a public defender. Our team strongly advises that you retain our representation as soon as possible, such as while you are under investigation, so we can protect your rights and negotiate for the best possible outcome.
- Initial Hearing/Arraignment: The defendant learns more about their rights and criminal charges, as well as if they will be held in prison or released until the trial. In many cases, a defendant can be released on bail. If a defendant can’t post bail, meaning pay the money, they may have to be in the custody of the U.S. Marshals while they await trial.
The defendant will also be asked to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges.
- Discovery: This process helps the prosecution and defense understand what evidence may be presented at trial. The prosecution is required to present the defendant evidence that they plan to use against them at trial. The goal of discovery is to prevent surprises, otherwise called “trial by ambush.”
- Plea Bargaining: If the prosecution has sufficient evidence to win a case, they may offer the defendant a plea bargain to avoid trial and potentially prevent them from suffering harsher sentencing. If a defendant pleads guilty, they don’t go to trial but rather a preliminary hearing.
- Preliminary Hearing: Otherwise referred to as a “mini-trial” the preliminary hearing requires that the prosecutor prove enough evidence exists to charge the defendant. If the judge concludes there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed a crime, a trial will soon be scheduled. However, if the judge does not believe there’s probable cause that the defendant committed the offense, they will dismiss the charges.
- Pre-Trial Motions: A prosecutor must respond to or file motions before trial. A motion is an application to the court made by the prosecutor or defense attorney asking that the court make a certain decision before the trial starts. Examples of motions include: Motion to Dismiss, Motion to Suppress and Motion for Change of Venue.
- Trial: This is when the facts of a case are presented to a jury, where they decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charge in question. Here, the prosecutor and defendant use witnesses and evidence to prove their arguments. The prosecution wants to prove the defendant’s guilt, while the defendant wants to establish their innocence. The trial consists of jury selection, opening statements, witness examination, objections and closing arguments.
After jury deliberations, they may reach an agreement on a verdict. If a defendant is found not guilty, they can go home.
- Post-Trial Motions: If a defendant is found guilty and convicted of a crime, they can file post-trial motions, such as Motion for a New Trial, Motion for Judgment of Acquittal and Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct a Sentence.
- Sentencing: A few months after the defendant is found guilty, they return to court to be sentenced.
- Appeal: Even after a defendant is found guilty, they can appeal to the Circuit Court if they believe they were wrongly convicted, or the sentence was too harsh. A common appeal is that a decision from the judge was incorrect, but even after an appeal is decided by a circuit court judge, a defendant can try to appeal that decision to the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
Our Fort Worth criminal defense attorneys are well-versed in both sides of the law, meaning we can provide you with the key insider knowledge you need to feel confident and prepared as you face the federal court system. When you put The Clark Law Firm on your side, you will soon learn why we are the best team to represent your case. We will stand as your advocates every step of the way, meaning you must contact us at (817) 435-4970 as soon as you’re aware of an investigation against you.