How Long Do Federal Criminal Cases Take to Go to Trial? Timeline Explained
Going through the federal criminal justice system can be a long and confusing process. Many defendants are facing the system for the first time and have lots of questions about how it all works. This article will walk through the typical timeline and major steps involved in federal criminal cases from start to finish.
Most federal criminal cases start with an investigation by a federal law enforcement agency like the FBI, DEA, ATF, or IRS. These investigations are usually kept secret at first so the target doesn’t know they are under suspicion. Investigations can take weeks, months or even years depending on the type and complexity of the case.
During the investigation, agents gather evidence through surveillance, undercover operations, witness interviews, subpoenas, and searches. If the investigating agents believe they have enough evidence, they will present it to federal prosecutors to consider bringing charges.
For a federal criminal case to begin, charges have to be filed in one of two ways:
- Criminal complaint – Agents can file a sworn statement explaining the allegations and evidence to a judge or magistrate, who will decide whether to issue an arrest warrant.
- Grand jury indictment – Evidence is presented to a grand jury, which will decide whether to issue an indictment formally charging the defendant.
An indictment from a grand jury is required for all felony cases. But for misdemeanors, charges are often filed through a criminal complaint and arrest warrant instead.
Once charges are filed either way, an arrest warrant can be issued and the defendant taken into custody.
After an arrest on federal charges, the defendant must be taken before a judge or magistrate for an initial appearance within 48 hours. At this first hearing:
- The charges are reviewed
- The defendant is advised of their rights
- Bail is considered if the defendant was arrested
- If arrested without a warrant, a probable cause determination is made
If the charges originated from a criminal complaint, the judge will decide whether there is probable cause to move forward with the case. Defendants who waive their right to a grand jury may also be arraigned at initial appearance.
The arraignment usually happens within 10 days of the initial appearance for defendants in custody, or within 20 days for those released pending trial. At the arraignment:
- Charges are formally read to the defendant
- Defendants enter a plea (usually not guilty at this stage)
- Trial schedule may be discussed
If indicted, no probable cause determination is needed. But the defendant is formally advised of charges and enters a plea.
For defendants who were arrested, a bail hearing may be held at initial appearance or arraignment. The judge will hear arguments from prosecution and defense about whether bail should be granted and if so, under what conditions. Defendants considered a flight risk or danger to the community may be denied bail.
Factors like family ties, employment, financial resources, and criminal history help determine bail eligibility and conditions like electronic monitoring, travel restrictions, etc. Most federal defendants do not get released without some conditions.
After arraignment, prosecutors must provide copies of evidence, witness lists, investigative reports and other documents relevant to the defense as part of the discovery process. Defendants may also issue subpoenas for records related to their case.
Reviewing discovery is crucial for understanding the government’s case and deciding how to proceed. Cases often end in plea agreements after discovery rather than continuing to trial.
Before trial, either side can raise issues and ask the court to decide on matters related to evidence, procedure, etc. Common motions in federal criminal cases include:
- Suppress evidence – Argue evidence was obtained illegally and should be excluded from trial.
- Dismiss case – Argue there are legal or constitutional issues that undermine the validity of the charges.
- Sever charges/defendants – Argue joined charges or co-defendants should be split into separate trials.
- Compel discovery – Ask the judge to order disclosure of additional evidence from the prosecution.
Hearings may be held to allow both sides to argue their positions on pretrial motions filed.
At any point after charges are filed, the defense can negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors. Agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for charging or sentencing concessions avoids the risk and expense of trial.
Over 90% of federal criminal cases end in plea bargains rather than trials. Defendants admitting guilt early on typically get better deals from prosecutors.
Less than 3% of federal criminal cases go to trial. Defendants have a right to trial by jury for any felony charge and most misdemeanors.
- Jury selection – Before opening statements, a jury pool is screened through voir dire and 12 jurors + alternates are chosen.
- Trial – The trial typically takes 2-3 days up to a couple weeks depending on complexity. Witnesses testify and other evidence is presented.
- Jury deliberations – After closing arguments, the jury deliberates in private until a unanimous verdict is reached.
For petty misdemeanors, defendants can waive the jury right and opt for a bench trial decided by the judge alone.
If convicted by guilty plea or trial verdict, a presentence report is prepared by the probation department to guide sentencing. The judge considers sentencing guidelines, statutory minimums/maximums, and arguments from both sides before imposing a sentence.
Sentencing usually takes place 90-120 days after conviction for defendants out on bail or 75 days for those in custody.
Defendants who plead guilty or are convicted at trial can file an appeal to contest errors they believe deprived them of a fair process. However, appeals courts give great deference to lower courts, so few federal appeals succeed.
The stages and timeline covered above provide a general overview of how most federal criminal cases progress after charges are filed. But each case has unique facts that could alter the timeline. And some districts may do things a bit differently.
Having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer is crucial for understanding how the federal process applies to your specific case. They will guide you through each stage while protecting your rights and advocating for the most favorable outcome under the circumstances.
The Role of the Judge
Throughout the federal criminal case process, the judge plays an important role in:
- Determining probable cause for charges
- Advising defendants of their rights
- Setting bail/release conditions
- Hearing pretrial motions
- Accepting guilty pleas
- Presiding over trials
- Imposing sentences
Judges are also responsible for setting schedules and deadlines to keep cases moving forward in a timely manner. Their oversight helps ensure proper procedures are followed at each stage.
Key Steps for Defendants
If you find yourself facing federal criminal charges, some of the key steps you can take to protect your rights and build the strongest defense include:
- Hiring an experienced attorney – Federal cases are complex. Having qualified counsel is essential.
- Not speaking to investigators – Defendants have a right to remain silent. Speaking without an attorney can hurt your case.
- Requesting bail – Unless deemed a risk, defendants should seek pretrial release under appropriate conditions.
- Reviewing discovery – Look for weaknesses in the government’s case and evidence that helps defend you.
- Seeking plea deals – Consider negotiating for lesser charges or sentencing recommendations.
- Filing pretrial motions – Challenge inadmissible evidence or faulty procedures.
- Preparing testimony – If going to trial, be ready to take the stand or call witnesses.
- Getting character references – Submit letters to the judge attesting to your good character.
The Bottom Line
The federal criminal justice system has many moving parts. But having an experienced attorney to guide you through the complex process can help you secure the most favorable outcome. Don’t go it alone. Consult with a lawyer as early as possible after learning you are under investigation or facing charges.