The Federal Criminal Justice Process

Gavel and books explaining the federal criminal law process

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If you are charged with a federal crime, it pays to have an understanding of how the system works. The federal criminal justice process is exacting and follows a carefully plotted course guided by each case's unique circumstances.

If you find yourself in the difficult position of facing a federal criminal charge, turn to a seasoned Killeen criminal defense attorney who has wide-ranging experience successfully handling these complex cases.

Not All Crimes are Federal Crimes

The federal government presses charges when the crime in question affects it or when no specific state has jurisdiction.

For example, while murder is a crime in every state, it generally is not a federal offense unless the federal government is directly involved, such as when a federal agent is murdered in the line of duty. Additionally, robbery – illegal in every state – becomes a federal crime when it relates to the federal government, such as when a bank that is federally insured is robbed.

Ultimately, federal law enforcement agencies only investigate those acts that are believed to violate federal law.

The Federal Agency Doing the Investigating

Federal agencies specialize in certain kinds of cases, which means they don’t function like local police departments that take on whatever cases come their way. The nature of the offense in question guides which federal agency will be doing the investigation.

For example, the FBI is the primary federal agency for cases involving terrorism, and they also step in during fast-moving child abduction cases. On the other hand, the Secret Service investigates cases involving the counterfeiting of currency. By focusing on specific kinds of cases, federal agencies gain valuable experience and expertise.

The Federal Pretrial Stage

In the federal pretrial stage, federal law enforcement agencies investigate alleged crimes that are brought to their attention as a means of determining if a federal crime was committed. If the agency determines that a crime has been committed, it will then investigate who committed it.

If the federal agency determines that a federal crime was committed, federal officers – who are known as special agents – can take any of the following courses of action:

  • Arresting the accused without obtaining an arrest warrant if they have reasonable grounds for believing the arrestee committed the crime in question

  • Obtaining an arrest warrant in the name of the accused

  • Delaying the arrest in order to gather additional evidence against the accused

The course of action federal agents take in any given case depends upon the unique circumstances involved.

Obtaining a Search Warrant from a Judge

For so-called white-collar crimes, gathering documents from the suspects and other parties generally plays a critical role in the investigation. Agencies typically apply for a search warrant from a magistrate to search a specific site for evidence relevant to the case.

Seeking a Subpoena from a Grand Jury

Federal agents can also seek subpoenas from grand juries, which are impartial groups of citizens from the communities in question who evaluate the available evidence and determine if a federal crime was committed and, if so, by whom.

The subpoenas issued by federal grand juries are intended to obtain evidence and testimony that will aid the grand jury in their investigations. The grand jury can also compel testimony, including the testimony of crime victims. When the grand jury has probable cause to believe that a specific defendant committed a crime, it issues an indictment, which is a charging document.

Initial Appearance

If a magistrate issues a search warrant for an individual or if a grand jury returns an indictment against him or her, the suspect can be arrested and kept in custody while the case is pending. If neither of these applies, the agent must bring the suspect before a magistrate who is responsible for determining if there is probable cause to believe that the suspect committed a federal crime.

At this initial appearance, the arrestee is informed of the federal charges against him or her and is advised of the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel. If the accused is deemed a danger to the community, he or she may be held in custody, but if not, he or she can be released at the initial appearance. There is no bail system in the federal criminal justice process.


At arraignment, the defendant is formally charged and provided with a copy of the charges against him or her. At this point, the defendant can enter a plea responding to the charges, which is usually either guilty or not guilty. If the accused has negotiated a plea bargain with the prosecution, he or she may enter a guilty plea at arraignment in order to uphold their end of the bargain.

Discovery and Motions

After arraignment – if a plea deal wasn’t struck – both sides proceed to the discovery and motions process.


Discovery allows the defendant to seek the information and material that the prosecution has regarding the case. The prosecution has the same right but to a more limited degree.

Motions Practice

Both sides typically engage in robust pretrial motion practice, which refers to filings that ask the court to take a specific action in the case. For example, the defense can file motions such as the following:

Examples of motions brought by the prosecution include the following requests:

  • A filing requesting that the defendant disclose his or her alibi

  • A filing requesting that the defendant disclose psychiatric information

  • Filings requesting reciprocal disclosure on the part of the defendant

The attorneys who represent crime victims can also file motions in assertion of their clients’ rights.

Plea Bargaining

The federal government and the defendant can strike a deal with one another instead of proceeding to trial, which generally involves the defendant pleading guilty to an original charge or a lesser charge in exchange for some concession made by the prosecution. Such concessions can include all the following:

  • The dismissal of additional charges

  • A recommendation to the judge for a specific sentence

  • An agreement not to oppose the defendant’s request for a specific sentence

While victims can weigh in on the plea bargain process, they do not have the right to shut down the prosecution’s decision to proceed with a specific plea deal.

When a plea bargain is reached, both sides present it to the court. The victim in the case has the right to not only appear in court at this time but also to make a statement about the plea deal. If the court accepts the deal in question, it sets a sentencing date and determines if the defendant needs to be held in custody until then.

Federal courts have options when it comes to the deals struck between defendants and prosecutors:

  • They can accept the plea deal.

  • They can reject the plea deal.

  • They can discuss acceptable alternatives with both sides.

When a plea deal is rejected, the defendant has the right to withdraw the guilty plea and head to trial.


At trial, both sides present evidence that is intended to prove or disprove the charges made by the prosecution. Most trials are held before juries, but some are tried solely by the judge involved, which is called a bench trial. The prosecution is tasked with proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.


In federal trials, victims often play a role in the process. They can participate in two primary ways:

  1. Testifying as a witness to the crime

  2. Explaining how they were harmed by the crime

Even when victims are not set to testify at the trial, they are not kept from the proceedings.

The Trial Process

Most federal trials move through several basic steps – each of which can take considerable time to complete.

Voir Dire

Voir dire involves selecting jurors from a pool of candidates for a specific case. The process involves questioning each potential juror as a means of aiding selection.

In capital cases, voir dire is divided into two phases: general voir dire and death qualification. The death qualification phase allows the government to excuse any potential jurors who refuse to consider the death penalty for those cases in which it is a possibility.

The Stage in which Guilt Is or Is Not Proven beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The next stage in the process is the meat of the trial, and it generally begins with the prosecutor making an opening statement. The defense can then make an opening statement of its own or save its statement for the beginning of its case. From here, all the following events transpire:

  • The prosecution presents the federal government’s case against the defendant through the testimony of witnesses and physical evidence.

  • The defense has the right to cross-examine any witnesses the prosecution questions.

  • Once the government’s case is completed, the defense may move the court to acquit the defendant on the grounds that there is too little evidence to obtain a conviction.

  • If this motion is denied, it is time for the defense to present its case, which can begin with an opening statement. The prosecution also has the right to cross-examine any witnesses questioned by the defense.

  • The prosecution may then rebut the defense’s case.

  • Following this rebuttal, the defense has the right to again move for an acquittal based on too little evidence, and if this, too, is denied, the prosecution and then the defense proceed with their closing arguments. At this point, the prosecution, which has the burden of proof, has another opportunity to make a final statement.

  • The judge then instructs the jury on the law they’re required to apply in the case at hand.

  • At this point, the jury retires to decide the case, and once it reaches its decision, they return to the courtroom and announce their verdict.

  • In bench trials, the judge deliberates on the case at hand and returns a verdict once the deliberations are complete.


When the defendant is found guilty of at least one charge, the court will impose a sentence after a probation officer conducts a background investigation. This process involves investigating any mitigating or aggravating factors and using the information to prepare a pre-sentence report for the judge. All of the following information can be included in the pre-sentence report:

  • Any prior criminal record the defendant has

  • The defendant’s social history

  • The defendant’s financial history

  • Any of the defendant's relevant personal characteristics

  • Any specific circumstances that affect the defendant’s behavior

The officer will also gather information about the crime's effect on the victim, which can include filling out forms and providing documentation of losses. Such documentation can prove the following kinds of losses:

  • Related medical bills

  • Lost wages on the job

The victims in these cases also have the right to create a victim impact statement, which describes how the crime affected them in their own words. This statement is presented to the presiding judge and becomes part of the record at sentencing.

Both the victim and the defendant have the right to be present and make a statement at sentencing. Further, both the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney address the court regarding the impending sentence.

From here, the court can sentence the defendant to any of the following punishments:

  • Time in a federal prison

  • Probation

  • Community service

  • A specific program

  • Fines that are designed to pay the victim restitution

Post-Trial Proceedings

After the trial and sentencing are complete, the defendant may appeal the conviction or sentence in an attempt to have either set aside. Appeals proceed to the circuit court of appeals, and if this does not provide the relief sought, the defendant can seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, it’s important to note that the Court has discretion regarding which cases it reviews, and very few federal criminal cases make their way to SCOTUS.

It's Time to Consult with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a savvy criminal defense attorney who is well prepared to help strategize your strongest defense in pursuit of a favorable outcome for your federal case. Learn more about what we can do to help by contacting us online or calling us at (254) 781-4222 today.

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