Facing the federal justice system can be a harrowing experience. There are over 4,500 federal crimes on the books and over 400,000 regulations. All this legislation makes it easy for anyone to get jammed up if they are not careful. The federal courts are not focused exclusively on serious crimes but may obtain jurisdiction over even less serious matters that involve immigration, alcohol law violations, tax evasion, U.S. mail crimes, bank fraud, and identity theft.
In defending against these crimes and other more serious crimes such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, public corruption, and murder, all comes down to experience. There is no other way of overcoming the learning curve in litigation. Litigation is a practice where attorneys have to engineer their pleadings, their objections, and their appeals to understand what and what doesn’t work. In doing so, they progressively develop their skills and do so much faster if they have a talent for the work and a way with words.
Overview of the Federal Criminal Procedure
A federal crime is initiated when you are arrested and charged with a federal crime or several. The federal courts may have simultaneous jurisdiction over the same crimes and can prosecute you for the same events even if you were acquitted in the state courts. Although this has not happened in Seattle a whole lot, one famous case occurred in Pennsylvania where the local police had tried to cover up a racist murder.
Once you are arrested, you have the right to a bail hearing within 72 hours. If you post bail, you may be released with conditions. In any regard, you are entitled to a hearing within 10 days of your arrest where the prosecutor must show probable cause. Establishing probable cause does not require the prosecution to prove that you are guilty beyond every reasonable doubt but merely a likelihood that you committed the crimes in question.
Although this standard is broad and allows for a range of cases of all different strengths, it can also include cases that are based on pure speculation because you were remotely related to the events that took place such as being at the wrong place at the wrong time. These types of weak cases can be dismissed by a skilled defense attorney.
The criminal process will be initiated with either an indictment that requires a grand jury to validate the existence of a case or a criminal information supported by an officer’s testimony of probable cause for the arrest. In either case, the information or indictment and its accompanying documents must set out the nature and cause of why you are being prosecuted.
You cannot just be given a generic recitation of the statute and told that you violated it. These documents violate the Sixth Amendment when they are deliberately vague, ambiguous, or misleading.
After this, you will be formally arraigned. This is your opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty. You will be given instructions regarding the nature of the accusations and your rights. After this phase, you can move for discovery evidence and can file motions for relief. These motions can include motions to dismiss and many others to limit the evidence or compel the prosecutor to produce evidence.
After all the pre-trial motions are settled, you will have a trial scheduled. You may be able to take depositions of the prosecution’s witnesses before trial to build a defense. The trial is the main event, however, and is live before a jury of your peers. Jury selection and instructions are important elements of the case that only a skilled attorney with decades of experience can master.
Finally, if you are acquitted, you go home and everything is though it never happened. The charges are regarded in law as a legal nullity and can never be refiled or brought back against you. However, if you are found guilty, you will face a pre-sentencing investigation report and then eventually be sentenced by the judge. The federal sentencing guidelines have many mandatory sentences that can make it hard to mitigate and reduce the sentence.
For this reason, many defendants (over 97 percent) choose to take a plea bargain instead. The beauty of having skilled counsel for plea bargaining is that you can increase the hypothetical risk of the prosecutor blowing trial and force them to reduce the punishment. You may be able to pursue appeals and post-conviction habeas corpus relief in either case. However, most guilty pleas waive direct appeal errors and can be hard to undo after the fact.