FAQs on Federal Criminal Complaints and Arrest Warrants
Getting arrested and charged with a federal crime can be a scary and confusing experience. Many people have questions about how the federal criminal justice system works when it comes to complaints, arrest warrants, and the steps that follow an arrest. This article will answer some frequently asked questions about federal criminal complaints and arrest warrants.
What is a federal criminal complaint?
A federal criminal complaint is a written statement made under oath alleging that a person has committed a federal crime. It is filed with a federal magistrate judge by a federal law enforcement officer or federal prosecutor (Assistant US Attorney).
The complaint describes the essential facts of the alleged crime and establishes probable cause to believe a federal crime was committed by the accused person. It typically includes:
- The name of the accused
- Date and location of the alleged crime
- Details about how the accused committed the specific crime
- Statutes violated
- Witness statements
- Other evidence establishing probable cause
Unlike state cases which often begin with an arrest, federal criminal cases usually begin with the filing of a complaint.
How does a judge decide whether to issue a summons or arrest warrant?
The prosecutor requests either an arrest warrant or a summons, and the judge decides which one to issue. If the complaint establishes probable cause for the crime, the judge will typically grant the prosecutor’s request.
Factors that may lead to requesting a warrant include:
- Severity of the alleged crime
- Strong evidence against the accused
- Prior criminal record or history of failing to appear in court
- Risk that the accused will flee before trial
Less serious nonviolent crimes with little flight risk may result in a summons instead of an arrest warrant. But the judge has discretion in deciding which to issue.
What happens during an initial appearance after an arrest?
After being arrested on a federal warrant, the accused is brought before a magistrate judge for an initial appearance. This must occur “without unnecessary delay” after the arrest, usually within 24-48 hours.
At the initial appearance the judge will:
- Inform the accused of the charges against them
- Appoint counsel if the accused cannot afford a lawyer
- Determine identity and issue any necessary pretrial detention order
- Set conditions for pretrial release or detention
The judge will also typically schedule preliminary and detention hearings for shortly after the initial appearance.
How does a federal grand jury work?
Federal felony charges are initiated by a federal grand jury, which decides whether probable cause exists to formally charge the accused by issuing an indictment.
- Grand juries have 23 members and meet in secret.
- To return an indictment, at least 12 jurors must find probable cause.
- Prosecutors present witnesses/evidence establishing probable cause.
- Defense lawyers are not allowed to attend or present evidence.
If an indictment is returned, an arrest warrant can be issued by a judge for any defendant not already in custody.
What happens at an arraignment?
The arraignment usually occurs within 10 days after an indictment or information is filed. The accused is brought before a magistrate judge and:
- Read the charges they face
- Advised of their rights
- Enters a plea (guilty or not guilty)
- May have bail set or reviewed
- Has trial date scheduled if pleading not guilty
This marks the point where the charges are formally pending against the defendant in court.
How does the sentencing process work?
For cases ending in a guilty plea or guilty verdict, sentencing will occur about 8 weeks later before the district court judge.
At sentencing the judge will:
- Consider sentencing guidelines and recommendations
- Hear arguments from both sides
- Allow the defendant to speak
- Impose a sentence within the statutory range
The sentence may include prison time, supervised release, fines, and restitution to any victims. Appeals of the conviction or sentence can be filed after sentencing.