How Do Federal Defense Attorneys Handle Pretrial Motions?
Pretrial motions are a critical part of the federal criminal justice process. They allow both prosecutors and defense attorneys to raise important legal issues before a trial begins. For federal defense attorneys, pretrial motions are an opportunity to advocate for their clients, challenge the prosecution’s case, and work to get charges dismissed or evidence suppressed. Here’s an overview of how pretrial motions work and the key ways defense attorneys use them:
What Are Pretrial Motions?
A pretrial motion is a written request filed by either the prosecution or defense asking the judge to make a decision on a legal issue prior to trial. Common pretrial motions include:
- Motion to dismiss: The defense attorney argues there is insufficient evidence or the facts don’t amount to a crime, seeking to get charges dismissed.
- Motion to suppress evidence: The defense attorney seeks to exclude evidence from trial that was obtained illegally, such as from an unlawful search.
- Motion for change of venue: The defense argues pre-trial publicity prevents a fair trial locally.
- Motion in limine: Either side seeks to exclude or allow specific evidence at trial.
Why File Pretrial Motions?
- Resolve legal disputes efficiently before trial starts
- Get charges dismissed pre-trial if possible
- Suppress damaging evidence so the jury doesn’t see it
- Limit witnesses or testimony
- Preserve legal issues for appeal if motions are denied
- Gain insight into prosecutor’s strategy and evidence
“Even if a motion is denied, the defense attorney will have gained valuable knowledge to develop an effective trial strategy,” explains federal defense lawyer Joseph Lento.
Common Types of Defense Pretrial Motions
Seeking dismissal of charges is a top priority. Common dismissal motions include:
- Motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction: Argues the court lacks authority over the case.
- Motion to dismiss for pre-indictment delay: Argues delays before indictment caused substantial prejudice.
- Motion to dismiss the indictment: Challenges the sufficiency of the indictment.
- Motion to dismiss for selective or vindictive prosecution: Argues the defendant was improperly singled out.
Suppression motions aim to prevent damaging evidence from reaching the jury. Examples include:
- Motion to suppress evidence from unlawful search: Seeks to exclude evidence from a search lacking probable cause.
- Motion to suppress statements: Seeks to suppress statements obtained unlawfully, such as during interrogation.
- Motion to suppress identification: Challenges eyewitness identifications done improperly.
Defense attorneys also raise constitutional issues, such as:
- Motion to dismiss for lack of speedy trial: Argues delays violated the 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial.
- Motion to dismiss for double jeopardy: Argues trying the defendant twice for the same crime violates the 5th Amendment.
Other Common Defense Motions
- Motion for a bill of particulars: Seeks more details about the charges and allegations.
- Motion for discovery: Requests evidence or other information from prosecutors.
- Motion to sever charges/defendants: Seeks separate trials for different charges or co-defendants.
- Motion to exclude prior convictions: Seeks to prevent impeachment of the defendant with past crimes.
The Pretrial Motion Process
- Defense attorney files a written motion explaining the legal basis and relief sought.
- Prosecution files a response brief countering the defense’s arguments.
- Judge hears oral arguments at a motion hearing and issues a written ruling.
- If denied, the defense can raise the issue again at trial but the motion preserves the legal issue for appeal.
- If granted, it limits evidence the jury hears or impacts the case significantly.
“An experienced federal defense attorney will file motions challenging every vulnerable aspect of the prosecution’s case,” says top-rated defense lawyer Dr. Nick Oberheiden.
Key Defense Strategies for Pretrial Motions
- File motions early to allow time for thorough arguments.
- Focus on motions that have the greatest chance of dismissal or suppressing important evidence. Don’t file frivolous motions.
- Craft a targeted legal theory and cite the most relevant case law to support it.
- Anticipate how prosecutors will respond and preemptively counter their arguments.
- Be prepared to show up ready to argue at motion hearings and answer the judge’s questions.
- Use pretrial motions to probe weaknesses in the prosecution’s case and gain insight into their strategy.
- Make a record through motions to preserve issues, even if they are denied, for stronger appeals.