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The Spodek Law Group understands how delicate high-profile cases can be, and has a strong track record of getting positive outcomes. Our lawyers service a clientele that is nationwide. With offices in both LA and NYC, and cases all across the country - Spodek Law Group is a top tier law firm.

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The Different Stages of a Federal Criminal Case Explained

By Spodek Law Group | October 18, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 19, 2023)

Last Updated on: 19th October 2023, 02:07 pm


The Different Stages of a Federal Criminal Case Explained

Dealing with a federal criminal case can be super confusing and stressful. There’s a lot that goes into the process, with different stages and legal terminology that can make it hard to understand what’s happening. As someone whose gone through this before, I wanted to write up a guide breaking down the basics of how a federal criminal case usually goes from start to finish. This is just a general overview, since every case is different, but hopefully it gives you a better idea of what to expect.


First, there’s the investigation stage. This is when the government — usually federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, etc. — start looking into suspicions of criminal activity. They use a bunch of different investigation techniques like surveillance, undercover operations, informants, search warrants, subpoenas, and interviews. The goal is to gather enough evidence to show there’s probable cause a federal crime has been committed, which is the legal standard they need to make an arrest or get an indictment.


Once investigators feel they have probable cause, they can arrest the suspect. This usually means the police will come to your home or workplace and take you into custody. Sometimes they’ll let you turn yourself in. After arrest, you’ll be fingerprinted, photographed, and probably held in jail until your bail hearing.

Initial Appearance & Bail Hearing

After getting arrested, you’ll be brought before a judge pretty quickly for your initial appearance. This is where they read you the charges against you, and decide whether to release you on bail. A prosecutor will argue why you should stay in jail, while your defense lawyer argues for release. The judge considers factors like your criminal history, employment, community ties, and whether you’re a flight risk or danger to the public. If bail is granted, you or your family/friends will have to provide money or property to the court as collateral to get released.

Preliminary Hearing

For felonies, there will usually be a preliminary hearing next. This is where the prosecution has to show there’s probable cause to believe you committed the crime. They’ll bring out some evidence and witnesses to testify against you. Your lawyer can cross-examine them and argue there’s not enough proof to go forward. If the judge agrees there’s probable cause though, the case continues to the next steps.

Grand Jury Indictment

After (or instead of) a preliminary hearing, your case will go to a grand jury. This is a panel of citizens who hear evidence from the prosecution and decide if there’s probable cause to issue an indictment. An indictment is a formal criminal charge. If the grand jury votes to indict, your case will move ahead to trial. But if they don’t think there’s enough evidence, they can choose not to indict and your case will most likely get dismissed.


Once indicted, you’ll be arraigned where the formal charges are read and you enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest. This usually happens pretty quickly after indictment. The judge will also consider bail again if you’re in custody. If you plead guilty or no contest at this point, there won’t be a trial.

Plea Bargaining

Many federal cases end up getting resolved through plea bargaining instead of trial. This is where you negotiate an agreement with the prosecutor, pleading guilty in exchange for some benefits like reduced charges or a lighter sentence recommendation. If you accept a plea deal, there won’t be a trial and the judge will impose a sentence based on the plea agreement.

Pretrial Motions

Before trial, your lawyer will probably file some pretrial motions asking the court to make rulings that help your case. For example, they may try and get evidence thrown out or excluded if it was obtained illegally. The prosecution will argue against this. The judge will decide based on the law. These pretrial motions can sometimes lead to charges getting dismissed.


If your case doesn’t get dismissed or resolved by a plea deal, it will go to trial. At a federal criminal trial, the prosecution has to prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” to the jury. They’ll call witnesses and experts to testify against you. Your lawyer will get to cross-examine them. You can also testify in your own defense if you want, but you don’t have to since you’re presumed innocent. Your lawyer will also give an opening statement previewing your defense, and a closing argument on why the prosecution failed to meet their burden of proof.


After both sides present their case, the jury will deliberate in private and return a verdict. To convict, all 12 jurors must unanimously agree you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If they can’t agree, it’s a hung jury and the judge may declare a mistrial. An acquittal means you’ve been found not guilty and can’t be retried. But a guilty verdict means the case moves ahead to sentencing.


If you’re convicted, the final step is sentencing where the judge imposes a punishment. For felonies, there are federal sentencing guidelines that determine a point score based on things like the crime committed, criminal history, and other factors. More points means more prison time. The judge picks a sentence within the range recommended by the guidelines. In some cases there will also be mandatory minimum sentences that must be imposed no matter what. Both sides get to argue whether the guidelines should apply or if exceptions should be made.

So in a nutshell, that’s the basic process for how a federal criminal case works it’s way through the system. It involves lots of stages, procedures, and legal rules. Having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer helping you is crucial. The stakes are extremely high, so be sure to get advice from a pro before making any decisions on how to proceed.

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