What Happens If You Are Accused of a Federal Crime

What Happens If You Are Accused of a Federal Crime 2
What Happens If You Are Accused of a Federal Crime 3

For many accused of a federal crime, it may seem like the world is closing in because navigating the federal criminal justice system may seem daunting and terrifying for many.

The process can be long and confusing. But what is a federal crime?

A “federal crime” is one that is prosecuted under federal criminal law and not under state criminal law under which most of the crimes committed in the United States are prosecuted.

They include crimes like mail fraud, identity theft, credit card fraud, kidnapping, tax evasion, or some computer crimes may be considered federal offenses. Some of these offenses come with lengthy jail terms or hefty fines if someone is found guilty.

To understand what the processes are when a federal crime is committed it is helpful to understand the various steps that occur in the federal criminal justice process.

The Investigation

Federal crime prosecution starts with an investigation. Some people may not even realize they are being investigated, and some investigations may take months of years. Agencies like the FBI, the Secret Service, the DEA, or the Department of Homeland Security may be involved in an investigation for a federal crime. Agents may acquire a search warrant to search a suspect’s home or seize different electronic files from computers or smartphones.

During this stage, investigators may look for physical evidence, electronic evidence, and circumstantial evidence. Some people who are accused may also be arrested if there is probable cause.

Getting Charged

When enough information is gathered by the agents investigating the case, they present their information to a federal prosecutor. For some felony cases, the prosecutor calls a grand jury to review the case and determine if charges should proceed further.

A grand jury may be comprised of 16 to 23 people from the community. Just like a standard criminal trial, a grand jury hears evidence from witnesses and other sources during the proceedings in a District Court venue. At the conclusion of the hearing, the grand jury can decide if the charges against the suspect should be filed.

Being Arraigned

If the case continues past the point of the grand jury stage, the next step in the process is the arraignment. Arraignment may happen after getting arrested or being officially charged with a federal crime. The prosecutor holds a hearing in court in front of a magistrate and gives the accused a chance to hear the official charges. During this hearing, the magistrate also makes a decision about whether or not to grant the accused bail and allow for release from jail before the trial. Suspects should always have a lawyer by their side during this hearing.

The Discovery Process

After being charged with a federal crime, the next part of the process involves preparing for trial. People accused of crimes have a right to an attorney.

Dallas federal defense attorney Nick Oberheiden, who focuses his litigation practice on white-collar criminal defense, government investigations, SEC enforcement, and commercial litigation across the United States notes that those facing federal offenses need to undertake meticulous planning and research – as well as strategic planning – to prepare for their defense.

Before the trial begins, there is a months-long stage of gathering evidence for both sides. Both the defense and the prosecution officially ask for documents with discovery. They also seek witnesses to help support their cases.


Since trials can be costly, time-consuming, and stressful, some prosecutors may offer the accused a plea to avoid going to court. The plea bargaining stage may give the defendant an opportunity to come to an agreement with the prosecutor for a reduced sentence if a guilty plea is admitted. Some innocent defendants who want to avoid a trial simply accept the guilty plea.


Both before and after the criminal trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys may file legal motions to help their cases. Defense attorneys may attempt to file a motion to dismiss the case if they feel the evidence doesn’t support the charges. Both sides may also try to file motions to suppress certain types of evidence.

The Criminal Trial

The criminal trial may be the most overwhelming part of the process, especially for the defendant. Some trials may last days or weeks, and they can be disruptive to the accused’s daily life and routine. Many trials start with the selection of the members of the jury. Then, both the prosecutor and the defense can deliver opening statements. The prosecutor starts by presenting the government’s case against the accused. Then, the defense has a chance to present its own counter-argument to the case. After the closing arguments, the jury must then deliberate.

The Sentencing Phase

Once the trial is over, the jury must take the evidence and the facts from the proceedings to determine if the accused is guilty or innocent. This stage may take several hours or days. If they reach a guilty verdict, the process isn’t over. There is then a sentencing hearing, usually a few months later, that the judge controls. The judge looks at the elements of the case and the federal law regulating sentencing for the type of crime. The convicted person may be sentenced to time in federal prison or some sort of probation.

Requesting an Appeal

If someone is accused and convicted of a federal crime, there is also an appeals process. Defense attorneys may request an appeal for a new trial or a more appropriate sentence. The appeals process may take many years. To get a successful appeal, the case is reviewed by a higher court, such as the Circuit Court or even the Supreme Court. A panel of judges may review the facts of the case and grant an appeal or a new trial. If a new trial is granted, the entire court process must start all over.

The federal criminal justice process is a little different than the standard criminal court procedures for states. It’s important to consult a defense lawyer if there are concerns about being charged with a federal crime.

Law Firm Source: Federal-Lawyer.com