Appearing in a federal criminal court is undoubtedly intimidating. Knowing how federal court cases work and the possible outcomes will lessen your stress and anxiety. This is true whether you’re a criminal defendant or a family member. Continue reading to learn more about federal criminal cases, criminal trial process steps, and other criminal proceedings.
Table of contents
- Federal Crimes Cases
- Federal Criminal Investigations
- Federal Criminal Pre-Trial Process Steps
- Federal Criminal Trials
- Federal Criminal Sentencing
- Federal Criminal Appeals
- Federal Habeas Corpus Petition (28 U.S.C. § 2255 and 28 U.S.C. § 2241)
- Federal Probation
- Federal Supervised Release
- Federal Criminal Case and Federal Court Case Information
Federal Crimes Cases
Federal criminal cases are serious, and the outcome can significantly affect the accused person’s life. These cases end in either a criminal trial or a plea bargain. Criminal trials are essentially the final determination of the accused person’s guilt or innocence.
The federal criminal case timeline is complex, with federal prosecutions often taking an average of ten months. All federal criminal charges are brought in U.S. District Court cases. Continue reading to learn more about what happens when you are charged with a federal crime.
Contact the legal professionals at the Zoukis Consulting Group if you’re facing a federal case in criminal court. Our team will:
- Review your criminal court cases
- Explain the federal criminal court process
- Connect you with a qualified federal criminal defense attorney
Federal Criminal Investigations
Federal criminal cases often start with investigations to develop the necessary evidence for prosecutions. These investigations can take months or years as law enforcement agents try to prove that there was a potential violation of federal criminal law. The primary goal of federal investigations is to determine whether a federal crime was committed, the responsible parties, and to secure evidence of the criminal offense.
The FBI is the primary investigative agency during federal criminal cases. Agencies such as the SEC, DEA, ATF, and the Department of Homeland Security may also get involved. Law enforcement often collaborates with federal prosecutors who provide legal guidance, including obtaining search warrants, subpoenas, and arrest warrants.
Federal Criminal Pre-Trial Process Steps
The federal pre-trial process is a complex web of court hearings, Constitutional protections, and strict time limitations, including:
- Initial Hearing
- Plea Bargains
- Preliminary Hearings
- Pre-Trial Motions
While federal court cases are complex, we discuss federal indictments, pre-trial release, and plea bargains below. Clients are often concerned about these three federal criminal trial process steps.
Federal criminal court cases commence with either an indictment or a complaint. Criminal complaints are documents filed with federal magistrate judges to determine if there is probable cause to proceed. If probable cause is found, the case is presented to the grand jury for indictment consideration.
Under federal law, the government must request a grand jury indictment for any felony offense unless the arrested individual waives this right. If the grand jury finds that the individual has committed a crime, they return a true bill of indictment. This means they’re officially accused of a federal crime.
The indictment is the first criminal trial process step. It leads to other criminal proceedings.
Federal Pre-Trial Release
During the initial pre-trial hearing, federal judges determine whether the defendant should remain in custody or be released until the case concludes. While this can be a contentious hearing, many federal criminal defendants accused of non-violent crimes are allowed pre-trial release.
Pre-trial release often comes with conditions. For instance, there might be a court-ordered prohibition against violating state and federal laws or passing regular drug tests. Likewise, defendants must report to a U.S. Probation Officer who supervises them, conducts home inspections, and ensures compliance with the release conditions.
During the pre-trial stage of most federal criminal cases, defendants often plead guilty, thus avoiding going to trial. When a defendant pleads guilty, their defense counsel and the prosecutor agree on a plea agreement. This agreement may contain provisions about the maximum sentence federal prosecutors will seek.
While unsavory, plea agreements allow the United States Attorney’s Office to resolve cases quickly. On the other hand, federal prosecutors often grant certain concessions for agreeing to plead guilty, for example:
- Reduced or Dismissed Charges
- Lower Sentencing Recommendations
- Eliminating Specific Sentencing Enhancements
- Agreeing to Not Seek Mandatory Minimum Penalties
The decision to plead guilty or not guilty is deeply personal, but it is also highly strategic. Don’t make this decision lightly, as each approach has pros and cons. Always speak with your lawyer to best assess your options.
Federal Criminal Trials
Federal criminal cases proceed to trial if defendants question the evidence and their culpability. Motions to suppress specific evidence, inquiries into legal evidence, and requests to uncover witness lists are often submitted leading up to criminal trials.
The federal criminal court trial process is presided over by a federal judge alongside twelve jurors tasked with determining factual contentions. While the judge decides matters pertaining to the application of the law and the admissibility of evidence, juries are the trial court’s fact-finders.
While trial strategy is critical for a favorable case outcome, intelligent jury selection is also vital. Knowing this, sharp defense attorneys spend considerable time vetting potential jurors in criminal proceedings. Likewise, they often spend weeks preparing for trial on felony cases. These criminal trial process steps are critical for a successful outcome.
Federal Criminal Sentencing
Federal criminal court cases continue to sentencing if defendants plead guilty or are found guilty. A federal judge evaluates the sentencing recommendations made by the U.S. Probation Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and criminal defense lawyer. They then fashion a sentence for the defendant, including:
- Supervised Release
Below we discuss some of the legal constraints that influence sentences imposed during U.S. federal district court cases. It’s crucial to understand these criminal trial process steps as your case advances through the various criminal proceedings.
Federal Sentencing Guidelines
The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines are non-binding rules that outline sentencing policy for defendants convicted in a U.S. federal court. They provide for precise calibration of court sentences based on several factors, including defendants’:
- Subjective Guilt
- Offense Conduct
- Harm Experienced by Victims
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are a uniform sentencing system designed to ensure accountability, equity, and uniformity. Sharp federal criminal defense attorneys often argue for a downward departure from the Guideline’s recommendations. This is a common part of criminal proceedings.
Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (PSR)
Before sentencing a federal criminal defendant, judges consider the pre-sentence report, which is known by these names:
- Pre-Sentence Report (PSR)
- Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (PSI)
This report details the criminal conduct, any criminal history, Sentencing Guidelines provisions, and a generalized recommendation for a sentence. Likewise, the PSR also provides a detailed overview of the defendant’s background, including:
- Family History
- Medical Status
- Alcohol and Substance Abuse
- Work History
Federal courts place a lot of weight on the pre-sentence report. Likewise, the Federal Bureau of Prisons uses this document when making facility designations, treatment program placements, and more.
Experienced federal criminal defense attorneys rightfully place a lot of value on the pre-sentence report. It is common for federal prosecutors and defense counsel to argue over its content. Likewise, federal judges strongly consider the PSI when determining an appropriate criminal sentence.
Leading up to the sentencing hearing, defense counsel spends significant energy strategizing how to reduce criminal sentencing liability. While part of this criminal court process regards legal arguments, the other side concerns developing a sentencing narrative.
The sentencing narrative process emphasizes mitigating factors to support a more lenient sentence. Common sentencing mitigating factors in federal criminal court cases include:
- Minor Role in the Offense
- Cooperation with Authorities
- Unusual Circumstances
- Difficult Personal History
- Physical or Mental Illness
Experienced defense law firms pay critical attention to sentence mitigation. This is one area where a skilled lawyer can reap significant benefits for clients. Ensure to speak with your attorney about their sentence mitigation strategy if your criminal proceeding is approaching sentencing.
In federal court cases, defense counsel and prosecutors prepare for the sentencing stage by filing sentencing memorandums. These briefs argue for a specific sentence or sentencing range.
For example, federal prosecutors may argue for a Guidelines sentence or specific mandatory minimums. Defense counsel, on the other hand, almost always argues for a reduced sentence.
Defense sentencing memorandums often contain detailed sentencing mitigation discussions. Likewise, they may include character reference letters, a statement from the defendant, and other mitigation evidence.
Downward Departures (5k 1.1 Motions and Rule 35 Motions)
A common way for defendants in federal criminal cases to increase the likelihood of receiving favorable sentences is by cooperating with federal prosecutors. This cooperation is often taken into account when it comes time for sentencing.
These downward departure motions come in two varieties: 5K1.1 and Rule 35(b) motions. Both downward departures are based on the defendant providing “substantial assistance” to law enforcement in prosecuting someone else for criminal conduct.
The primary difference between these two downward departures is when substantial assistance occurs, for example:
- 5K1.1 Motions: This is awarded for pre-sentencing or pre-conviction cooperation. In these cases, the government files a 5K1.1 motion leading up to sentencing, triggering the federal judge to determine if they agree. If so, the judge departs from the Sentencing Guidelines, rendering a more lenient sentence.
- Rule 35(b) Motions: This is awarded for post-sentencing and post-conviction substantial assistance. In these cases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office files a Rule 35(b) motion with the sentencing court. If accepted, a new sentencing hearing is scheduled where the already sentenced defendant receives a reduced sentence.
Federal Criminal Appeals
Under federal criminal law, you can appeal trial convictions and, to some extent, sentences based on plea agreements. The purpose of federal criminal appeals is to seek the United States Court of Appeals to review the case and examine the alleged legal errors. These federal circuit courts review all cases on appeal.
Illegally obtained evidence, abuse of the court’s sentencing discretion, and exculpatory evidence not presented by the defendant are the most common appeal grounds. Remember, these direct appeals are appeals as a matter of law; they focus on legal error, generally not innocence.
Federal Habeas Corpus Petition (28 U.S.C. § 2255 and 28 U.S.C. § 2241)
After sentencing, federal criminal defendants can file two types of motions for post-sentencing relief, including:
- 28 U.S.C. § 2255 Motions
- 28 U.S.C. § 2241 Petitions
Federal habeas petitions under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 are often based on prosecutorial misconduct or ineffective assistance of counsel. While successful prosecutorial misconduct habeas petitions are rare, petitions based on ineffective assistance of counsel are much more common. These effectively argue that the defense attorney failed to act when required or acted improperly. If successful, these petitions result in evidentiary hearings and possible resentencing.
Federal prisoners can also file a 28 U.S.C. § 2241 motion. These habeas petitions are typically based on conditions of confinement, including probation, parole, supervised release, and imprisonment. While a complicated area of law, sharp defense counsel uses 28 U.S.C. § 2241 when relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 is unavailable.
Individuals convicted of federal crimes rarely receive probation-only sentences. Instead, they typically serve a specified term of supervised release after serving their prison sentence. Nonetheless, federal probation is possible when the crime is generally non-violent, and the defendant has a minimal criminal history.
When defendants are sentenced to probation, a U.S. Probation Officer monitors them until the probation period ends. As a sentence, probation doesn’t apply to Class A and B felonies. Probation is not possible if the crime’s statute expressly precludes it as a criminal sentence.
In most federal criminal cases, probation terms run:
- One to five years for felonies.
- Less than five years for misdemeanors.
- Less than one year for infractions.
Federal Supervised Release
Since probation is rare in federal criminal cases, most defendants serve a supervised release term after spending time in federal prison. Federal supervised release usually requires strict compliance and monitoring for up to five years, depending on the circumstances of the case.
Note that white-collar cases sometimes garner reduced supervised release terms. For example, simple fraud cases may result in a period of imprisonment followed by a one-, three, or five-year term of supervised release. On the other hand, defendants convicted of child pornography offenses may receive lengthy supervised release terms (e.g., 10-, 15-, 25- years).
As with federal probation, defendants under federal supervised release undergo close monitoring, including regular reports to federal probation officers. These officers are responsible for executing the conditions of supervised release. Violating these conditions may result in stricter penalties or even additional prison time.
Federal Criminal Case and Federal Court Case Information
Facing a federal criminal case is the last thing you want to experience. Sentences are often harsher than in state criminal cases, not to mention the long-term consequences of a conviction. There’s no better way to prepare yourself for criminal proceedings than having an experienced federal criminal defense team on your side.
We can help whether you are charged with a drug crime, financial offense, mail fraud, or Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) violation. Our team can explain everything from peremptory challenges and the attorney general’s involvement to practice in the courts of the United States.
At the Zoukis Consulting Group, we understand the stress and anxiety that accompanies federal cases. We will help you make the right decisions and secure the best possible outcome in your case. Contact us today to book a free case review.
Published Aug 15, 2022 by Christopher Zoukis, JD, MBA | Last Updated by Christopher Zoukis, JD, MBA on Aug 7, 2023 at 12:29 am