General Process of a Federal Criminal Case

Ezekiel E. Cortez

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Federal Crime Lawyer

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Posted about 5 years ago. 3 helpful votes



The first step in a federal criminal case - criminal complaint or Indictment.

The very first step in a federal criminal case will be the first appearance in court - the arraignment. That first appearance will be handled by a magistrate judge usually in the morning. At that hearing the charge will be read to the "defendant", bail will be determined and counsel will be appointed or retained counsel will make a general appearance. This usually happens in groups of other new cases in what is called "new complaints" and tends to be chaotic and stressful to "defendants" and lawyers alike. There is an assembly-line mood to this first introduction to federal court. You need to be ready to provide bail information, to address Pretrial Service's bail report. Bail bondsmen are rarely used in federal bail. Defendants plead not guilty and the next hearing - arraignment on the indictment - is usually in 14 days. As a rule, there are no preliminary hearings in federal court. Defendants are indicted by the grand jury usually within two weeks of the first appearance.



Within roughly 14 days of first appearance, the prosecutor (Assistant U S Attorney), will secure a grand jury indictment or offer a plea agreement and may ask the defendant to "waive time". A defendant waives time usually at the second court hearing and does so orally - no document needs to be filed. If you waive time, no indictment will be sought within the 14 days but instead a plea agreement will be drafted and offered. The plea agreement usually needs to be considered and accepted or rejected within a few days. If rejected, the prosecutor will then secure an indictment. If accepted, waivers and consents will be needed signed and filed rather quickly and a guilty plea hearing will be set within a few days. Waiver of Indictment and Consent to Plead Guilty before the magistrate are the two documents usually needed and can be found in the clerk's office or on the court's webpage online. In certain cases, additional documents will be needed - the prosecutor usually provides them.


Steps following indictment

If the plea agreement has been rejected, the next hearing will be for arraignment on the indictment and that takes place at the hearing which was already scheduled after the defendant "waived time" to consider the plea agreement. Once the defendant communicates the rejection of the plea agreement, the prosecutor secures the indictment from the grand jury and has it ready for the court hearing previously scheduled. Time is of the essence in this stage of the case and usually takes two weeks for all of this to happen. If the plea agreement is rejected, the "deal" offered usually gets worst from this point on, not better for the defendant. Unlike state cases handled by DAs, plea agreements don't get better as the case proceeds closer to trial in the federal process. The arraignment on the indictment is usually a simple process whereby the charge is read, the defendant pleads not guilty and case is set for status (within one week) or motions hearing (month) before a district court judge.


Steps following guilty plea

If the defendant accepts the plea agreement and files all necessary forms and written plea agreement, an Information will be prepared and filed by the prosecutor and the guilty plea is usually entered within two weeks. The guilty plea may be made before the same magistrate or before the district court judge randomly assigned to the case once the Information is filed with the court clerk. The entry of the guilty plea then triggers the need for a Presentence Report prepared by the Probation Department for sentencing. The Presentence Report is often a critical document in the case and can negatively affect the defendant despite the Plea Agreement. A defendant and her counsel will need to work with the Probation Officer assigned very closely and carefully to prevent or minimize negative effect on the case. Sentencing is usually set 60 days or so after the guilty plea. The Presentence Report is provided to the parties often 25 days before sentencing. Objections to it may be needed filed.


Motions and Trial

Pretrial motions must be electronically filed 14 days before the scheduled motions hearing, unless ordered differently by the court. The prosecutor usually provides discovery immediately after arraignment on the indictment. It is also normal for discovery to be provided during the plea negotiations period ot time after the initial appearance. The prosecutor files her Response one week before the hearing. Note: suppression motions may need to be supported by sworn declarations for an evidentiary hearing to be triggered. The hearing on the motions is usually at 2:00 pm and, depending on the complexity of the case, can take 1/2 hour to days. Most federal judges are notorious for not wanting to "waste" time with hearings. At the end of the motions hearing, a trial is then scheduled pretty quickly. Federal jury trials usually last three days unless the case is complex or document/witness intensive. Jury voir dire in federal courts is often conducted only by the judge.

Additional Resources

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