How Does the Criminal Process Work in the Federal System?
If you or a loved one has been charged with a federal crime, you need to know the events that will take place in the months ahead. It’s imperative that you retain an experienced attorney who can protect clients’ rights during every step of the process.
The 11 Steps of the Federal Criminal Process
The federal government has various agencies whose purpose is to gather evidence in federal cases. Examples include:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)
- Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
- Homeland Security Investigation (HIS)
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- United States Secret Service (USSS)
Either one or several agencies may be working on a case at any given time. The agencies will attempt to collect evidence (both direct and circumstantial), often through a search warrant. Before a judge issues a search warrant, there must be probable cause that a crime was committed.
Direct evidence is evidence that has been seen directly. Eyewitness testimony of seeing someone commit a crime would be one such example of this.
Circumstantial evidence is evidence that isn’t first-hand. An example would be if someone hit a parked car and later police officers found a damaged car with a smudge of the parked car’s paint color.
After the agencies have presented the evidence to the prosecutor, they will decide whether there is enough evidence to indict the person they think committed the crime. An indictment is a formal notification to someone that is believed to have committed a crime.
If the crime is a felony, the case will be presented to a grand jury, which can be anywhere from 16 to 23 people. During the initial presentation, all the evidence will be presented to the jury by the prosecutors and witnesses. The jury will decide if they think there is enough evidence to continue with the case. At this point, no argument is offered by the defense – this is just to see if a trial should go forward.
If the jury thinks there is enough evidence for a trial, the defendant will officially be charged with the crime.
The initial hearing is also known as an arraignment. Arraignments typically happen either the same day or the day after the defendant is arrested and charged.
Arraignment will take place in a federal court. There are federal courts in Springfield, Jefferson City, Kansas City, and St. Louis.
A magistrate judge will inform the defendant about the charges, determine if the defendant has an attorney, and then decide if the defendant will remain in jail or be released until the official trial begins.
If the judge decides the defendant can be released, in most cases, there is a bail amount set to ensure the defendant does not try to go into hiding or “skip bail.” If the judge decides against granting bail or the defendant cannot afford the set bail amount, he/she will remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshall Service.
Before any trial begins, both the prosecution and defense will work on the case. They will examine all evidence, speak to witnesses, and outline strategies for the upcoming trial.
Three types of witnesses may be involved in a trial:
- Lay Witness – A witness that relays what they say as it relates to the crime
- Expert Witness – A witness educated in a particular area, such as bullet ballistics, cell phone tracking, etc. They can only testify about topics relating to their expertise
- Character Witness – Someone who knows someone involved with the case. Often family members, friends, employers, etc. are used as character witnesses
All witnesses in a trial must take an oath saying that they will only tell the truth during their testimony.
After the prosecution has gathered all the information that they will use to charge the case, they must give copies of materials and evidence to the defense to prepare an adequate response. If the prosecution fails to provide some of this information, they can be fined.
The prosecution is forced to hand over all evidence, including that which might hurt their case and show the defendant’s innocence. This is called exculpatory evidence. If the prosecution fails to do this, it could result in a mistrial.
In some cases, there may be a reason to avoid a trial altogether. If the government has a very strong case, they might offer a plea bargain to avoid a lengthy trial.
Often certain concessions are made, such as the government not recommending a lengthier sentence. If both sides agree, the defendant pleads guilty in front of a judge, then the judge determines the sentence after hearing both sides’ recommendations.
The judge is the only one who determines the final punishment, so it’s vital to have an experienced defense attorney to understand all possibilities of taking a plea agreement.
If no plea agreement is reached and the defendant pleads not guilty, the next step in the process will often be a preliminary hearing. The defendant has the choice to waive their right to a preliminary hearing if they choose.
The preliminary trial is a smaller version of a full trial where both the prosecution and defense can introduce witnesses and evidence. All evidence can be presented, including evidence that might not be allowed in front of a jury.
If, after this hearing, the judge determines there is not enough evidence to pursue the case, he/she will dismiss the case. If there is enough evidence, the full jury trial will be scheduled.
Preliminary hearings must be held within 14 days of the initial hearing if the defendant is in jail and within 21 days if the defendant was released on bail.
Right before the trial begins, both the prosecution and the defense can file motions. Filing a motion makes the court decide on a particular topic before the trial begins. Pre-trial motions that might be filed include:
- Motion to Dismiss – If the evidence for the case is shaky or the evidence does not amount to a crime, the defense may file this motion.
- Motion to Suppress – This is an attempt to keep certain pieces of evidence from being introduced into the trial. If the evidence is not solid or was gathered unlawfully, it might be suppressed.
Motion for a Change of Venue – If the defense feels that their client cannot receive an impartial trial due to location, they may move to have the trial relocated.
After all of the other processes have taken place, which sometimes can take weeks or months, the trial will begin. The prosecution will attempt to prove that the defendant committed the crime, and the defense will tell the other side of the story to prove innocence.
The judge during the trial phase will remain impartial. He/she will make sure all the trial rules are followed, the evidence that is submitted is proper, and that the entire process is fair.
The first step of the trial is jury selection. Twelve jurors will be selected from a random pool of people called to participate in the trial based on living in the federal district where the trial is taking place.
Both the prosecution and the defense can eliminate potential jurors if they feel that those jurors wouldn’t be impartial during the trial. The goal is to have twelve jurors from all backgrounds to give the defendant the best chance of having a fair trial.
Once the jury is selected, both the prosecution and defense will offer their opening statements, which are short introductions to how each side plans on handling their case. Because the prosecution is in charge of proving guilt (vs. the defendant who’s innocent until proven guilty), they will deliver their opening statement first.
The next phase is when the prosecution presents its case. They will call witnesses and introduce evidence to attempt to prove the defendant’s guilt.
After each witness, the defense can cross-examine the witness. This is when the defense attempts to disprove the witness’s testimony to cast doubt on the witness’s credibility or evidence.
Lastly, after the cross-examination, the prosecution will have one last chance to question the witness, called redirect examination. At this point, they will attempt to clarify any remarks made during cross-examination.
When the prosecution has finished introducing witnesses, the defense has their turn and introduces all the witnesses and evidence that will help to establish their client’s innocence. As in the prosecution’s portion of the trial, all witnesses can be cross-examined by the prosecution, and then the defense also has the opportunity for a redirect examination.
During the defense phase, there are certain times when the defense attorney thinks it would be wise to have the defendant testify to their innocence, and he/she will call the defendant as a witness. Having an experienced defense attorney who knows when this is a good idea is a key to a successful defense.
When testimony (witnesses’ answers) and evidence are presented to the jury, both the prosecution and the defense may make objections. Objections may be made due to relevance (if one side feels the evidence given is unimportant for the trial) or due to hearsay (someone heard secondhand information and doesn’t actually have their own information).
The judge will determine if the objection is valid or not and will either allow or disallow the evidence. If the judge agrees with the objection, the objection is “sustained.” If not, it’s “overruled.”
After the defense has finished their case, or “rested,” both sides will present final arguments summarizing their cases and why the defendant should or should not be found guilty.
When the arguments are finished, the judge will give the jury instructions on how to process in coming up with a decision or verdict. The jury will talk amongst themselves without any interaction from anyone associated with the trial.
Often, the jury might have questions about the law, and if they do, they can write a note and deliver it to the judge, who will answer any questions in front of the jury, lawyers, and defendant.
To convict a defendant for federal crimes, all twelve jury members must agree on a guilty verdict. Otherwise, the defendant will be found not guilty. Once a decision has been made, it is read in front of the entire courtroom.
If the defendant has been found guilty, there are more motions that the defense may file.
- Motion for a New Trial – Fairly rare, but if some portion of the trial was found to be incorrect, it could be granted.
- Motion for Judgment of Acquittal – The court may disagree with the jury’s verdict and reverse the decision.
- Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct a Sentence – This is to correct any clerical errors in the verdict.
Several months after being found guilty, the defendant will return to the courtroom for sentencing. The government has established minimum and maximum sentencing guidelines for all kinds of crimes. The judge will weigh all the evidence from the trial (statements from witnesses/victims, etc.) as well as “aggravating” or “mitigating” factors such as remorse, if this is the defendant’s first offense, or the seriousness of the crime itself.
After the judge has processed all of this information, he/she will deliver the sentence.
Even if the defendant is found guilty, the defense may appeal the decision. Appeals might be made if they feel the sentence was too harsh or errors were made during the trial process. The appellate (appeals) court won’t have another trial but instead will make determinations if they agree with the appeal or not. Appeals can result in having another trial, reducing sentences, or dismissing the conviction altogether. If the appeal is denied, it can be escalated to higher courts, the highest being the United States Supreme Court.
As you can see, there are a great many steps in the federal trial process, and having competent, experienced legal help on your side can give you the best chance of beating any federal charge. The team at Twibell Pierson Criminal Law has helped guide our clients through the complicated federal law system, and we will continue to do so. We ensure that our clients have the highest level of commitment and backing during a challenging time.