The information below gives a general overview of a federal criminal case from first appearance to sentencing. It does not speak to all of the intricacies of the federal criminal process and is not a substitute for consulting with an attorney. Each individual case is different. Speak to your attorney about the specifics of your case.

After arrest, a person must be brought before a judge without unnecessary delay. This is the initial appearance and is held in front of a magistrate judge. The judge will first confirm that you are the person named in the documents that brought you before the court. They will then inform you of the basis for the arrest, advise you of your rights, address whether there are circumstances that may allow for your release, and consider any application for court-appointed counsel. In our districts, this hearing typically takes place the same or next day.

If an Indictment or Information has already been filed, you will be arraigned. This means the judge will read to you the charges against you and ask you how you plead. At this stage, a not guilty plea will be entered. Your defense team will then have time to review your case and help you determine how to proceed.

A Pretrial Services Officer will visit with you prior to your initial appearance and arraignment. They work for the court. Their job is to prepare a report for the judge recommending whether you should be held in jail or be released pending further proceedings. They will ask about your family, employment, health, and any substance abuse issues or treatment needs. It is okay to answer these questions, but do not lie. If you are uncomfortable with a question, you may choose not to answer. The officer will also look up and include in the report any prior arrests or convictions you may have. However, they should not ask you about those or about the events leading to your arrest and charge. Do not discuss anything about your pending case, what led to your arrest, or any other illegal activity with the Pretrial Services Officer, including prior arrests. Anything you say to the probation officer can be used against you at trial or sentencing.

A motion is a formal request to the judge. In this case, the Government is asking the court to make a finding that you must stay in jail until your trial. The motion will include the Government’s reasons for their request. Generally, the court will consider whether there are conditions that can reasonably assure the safety of the community and that you continue to appear in court as directed. Some drug-related charges and crimes of violence carry a presumption of detention, meaning due to the nature of the crime charged it is believed that release is not safe. Your attorney will talk to you about your specific circumstances and may ask the court to set the motion for hearing. The detention hearing usually takes place a few days after your initial appearance and arraignment. This will give your attorney time to gather information from you and collect evidence that may be presented at your detention hearing.

If you are released, a Pretrial Services Officer will supervise you to ensure you follow the rules put in place by the court (these are referred to as the terms and conditions of your release). The officer will provide updates to the court, as needed. If you do not follow the conditions of your release, you can go back to jail.

There are three documents that can be used to initiate a criminal case in federal court- an Indictment, an Information, and a Complaint. An Indictment is issued after a grand jury has decided, based on evidence presented to them, that there is sufficient reason (or probable cause) to believe a crime was committed by the person named. A defendant may be brought before the court on an Information if the crime charged is a misdemeanor or the defendant, though charged with a felony, has waived prosecution by Indictment. This waiver generally occurs in connection with a plea agreement to a different charge than the one originally filed.

If you have been charged by Complaint, this means a grand jury has not yet considered whether there is probable cause to believe you committed the crime charged. Instead, a statement accusing you of a crime is presented to the court. This statement (or Complaint) will often have an attached Affidavit, signed by a law enforcement officer, describing the crime and the role they believe you played in it. In this instance, you have the right to a Preliminary Hearing in front of the magistrate judge within ten days of your initial appearance if you are in custody or within twenty days if you are released from custody. At that hearing, the judge will determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to believe you committed the crime alleged and should be subject to further proceedings. Sometimes, the grand jury will return an Indictment before your Preliminary Hearing. If that happens your Preliminary Hearing will be stricken, or canceled.

The grand jury is a group of people from the community called to serve by hearing evidence presented by the prosecutor (Government attorney). Their role is to decide, based on what is presented, if a federal crime was probably committed and whether the person they are investigating probably committed it. They issue formal charges, called Indictments. They are not the same jury that would hear your case should it go to trial. Defense attorneys are not present at grand jury proceedings. Only the attorneys for the government, the witness being questioned, a court reporter, and the jurors may attend.

It is time to begin working with your lawyer and other members of your defense team on your case. Your attorney will receive a Scheduling Order from the court. This document will have all of the important dates for your case. It will include when motions are due and court appearances, including your trial date. Your attorney will also request and receive discovery from the prosecutor and begin investigating your case. It is important that you cooperate with your lawyer and any member of your defense team.

Discovery is the ongoing process where parties in a case exchange certain types of evidence. However, you will likely hear the word used to refer to the actual evidence requested or provided. During this process, your attorney will request and review the evidence the prosecutor plans to use against you. This usually includes reports from law enforcement and any statements made by you. Because not all types of evidence are immediately discoverable and may come very late in the process, even during trial, it is essential that you are forthcoming with your attorney about your case. While your attorney will likely talk to the prosecutor about your case, they will not disclose any of the confidential information you have discussed. Anything you tell your attorney, or other representatives from the Federal Defender Office assigned to assist in your case, is privileged.

Your attorney will evaluate with you the strength of the evidence, inform you whether there are issues to be raised in a pretrial motion, explore possible defenses, and direct investigation on your behalf, as needed. They will also tell you the possible sentences you may face if you are convicted. This will help you decide whether you wish to enter a plea or go to trial.

You may. Your attorney will discuss options with the prosecutor and advise you of any offers made. They will negotiate on your behalf, but will not make any deals for you without your permission. You will decide, with your attorney’s help, whether you want to enter into a plea agreement with the Government. It is important to know that plea agreements in federal court do not contain guaranteed sentences. This is because the sentence you receive will be solely up to the judge. Plea agreements are written contracts between the defendant and the prosecutor, not the judge. However, in exchange for a plea of guilty, the prosecutor may agree to dismiss some counts, allow you to plead to a different, lesser charge, or agree to recommend a lighter sentence. Sometimes, in exchange for a plea offer the Government may ask you to “cooperate.” This means they want you to answer questions and give information about your crimes and the crimes of others. However, not everyone is asked to, so just because someone has a plea agreement does not mean they cooperated with the Government.

Even if you are not offered anything in exchange for a guilty plea, you can still plead guilty. In most cases you will still get a lighter sentence than if you were to be found guilty at trial. This is because the Sentencing Guidelines give a credit for “acceptance of responsibility,” which is demonstrated by a plea of guilty.

If you choose to plead guilty, a time will be set for you to appear before the judge to change your plea from not guilty (entered at your arraignment) to guilty. You will be giving up some important constitutional rights. At your Change of Plea hearing, the court will want to be sure you understand those rights and that you are making the decision voluntarily. The court will also want to make sure you understand the possible sentences and will ask you to describe what you did that makes you guilty. Your attorney will work with you to prepare you for the hearing.

You have a constitutional right to a trial by jury (except for certain misdemeanors). The law also says that you must be tried no earlier than 30 days and no later than 70 days after your first appearance. This time frame can be extended upon request but requires specific findings by the judge. Therefore, in most cases you can expect your trial to take place approximately two months after your first appearance. About a week before your trial, you will have a pretrial conference. The court will inquire about the number of witnesses, expected length of case presentation, and will resolve any outstanding pretrial motions.

At trial, a jury of twelve people will hear your case and decide whether you are guilty. You, your attorney, the prosecutor, and the judge will all participate in deciding who should be on the jury. If you and your lawyer determine it might be better for you to have a judge decide your case, you may waive the jury. However, the prosecutor must also agree to do so. After the jury has been selected, each side will have the opportunity to make an opening statement. Your attorney may choose to wait to give their opening statement until after the government has presented its case. The opening statement generally introduces the jury to what the case is about, what the anticipated evidence will be, and what the jury will be asked to decide. The government will then put on their case. They will call witnesses and show evidence to the jury. Your attorney will get to cross-examine or question the witnesses about their testimony. Once the government is done presenting their case, your attorney will have the chance to present any witnesses and evidence that will help your case. Remember, it is the prosecutor’s job at trial to prove guilt. It is not your job to prove you are innocent and the defense does not have to present any evidence at all. If it does, the government will be able to cross-examine defense witnesses and then when the defense is done, put on additional evidence.

After both sides finish presenting their evidence, each side will get to make a final statement to the jury. These are called closing arguments. Often, they summarize the evidence, tell the jury what they think it means, and how it should decide the case. Like during the presentation of evidence, the prosecutor goes first, the defense next, and then the prosecutor may go again. After, the judge will instruct the jury on the law and what questions it is to answer. The jury leaves the courtroom to discuss the case and try to reach its decision, or verdict. To find you guilty, all jurors must agree.

In federal court, there are two ranges for sentencing. First, there is the statutory range. It is the maximum and minimum sentence allowed by law for a given offense. This range is generally quite broad. The second is determined by the United States Sentencing Guidelines. They narrow the range based on your specific case. The Guidelines are a framework that assigns points to two categories- your offense and your criminal history. Those overall point values are applied to a table that determines your sentencing range in months. You will hear this called the Guidelines range. Various factors influence the assignment of points and an understanding of how federal sentencing works is crucial. This is why it is important to have an attorney that is experienced in federal criminal law. Before you enter a guilty plea or go to trial, your attorney will spend time reviewing the Guidelines with you and will inform you what they believe your Guidelines range will be.

After a finding of guilt is entered, whether by trial verdict or through a plea, a sentencing hearing will be set. Generally, the hearing takes place three months later. This is to give the Probation Office time to prepare a Presentence Investigation Report for the judge. A different officer than the one you met with before your initial appearance will be assigned to interview you and write the report. Your attorney will attend the interview with you and can discuss any questions or concerns you have in advance of that meeting. The report, or PSR, includes a summary of the offense, an outline of your criminal history, and information about your physical and mental health, history of substance abuse, family, education, and work history. It also gives the judge information about your sentencing options, including the Probation Officer’s determination of your Guidelines range. While it will not be contained in your report, the officer will also make a recommendation to the judge of which specific sentence within your range they believe is appropriate. The judge relies heavily on the report and recommendation, so it is important that you review your PSR carefully with your attorney, who can raise any factual mistakes in or legal arguments to the report.

While judges are required to consider the Guidelines, and often do follow them, they are not bound by them. The Guidelines are but one of several factors the court will consider in fashioning your sentence. Before the hearing, your attorney or the prosecutor may file a memorandum or sentencing request that addresses those factors, or they may just speak to them at the hearing. Supportive loved ones, friends, and community contacts may write a letter on your behalf. At your hearing, the judge will ask if you wish to say anything. You do not have to speak. However, if you choose to, it is best to discuss with your attorney ahead of time what you wish to say. Sentencing can be an emotional experience, so some people choose to have their thoughts written out ahead of time to read. Your attorney can help you decide the best approach. After listening to everyone, the judge will impose your sentence.

If you did not waive your right to appeal in a plea agreement, you may appeal the conviction, sentence, or both. An attorney with our office or from the CJA Panel will continue to represent you for free during the appeal. However, a notice of appeal must be filed within 14 days, so it is essential you immediately discuss your desire with your attorney. Grounds (or permissible reasons) for appeal are limited. Your attorney will review your case for instances where the judge did not follow the law or where certain Constitutional rights were denied. If they do not find any issues, and you still wish to appeal, it will be filed. However, the attorney must submit a brief to the court stating they believe there are no appealable issues in your case. The appellate court does not retry cases, entertain new evidence, or hear witness testimony. Instead, they review written arguments (called briefs), oral arguments made at their request, and the procedures and decisions of the trial court to determine if a serious error was made. If they find a harmful error occurred, they will reverse the judgment, usually sending the case back to the trial court with instructions to remedy the error. In most all cases, the defendant remains in custody while their appeal is pending.