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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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What Happens During a Federal Criminal Investigation? The Step-by-Step Process

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

Last Updated on: 19th October 2023, 02:01 pm


What Happens During a Federal Criminal Investigation? The Step-by-Step Process

If your involved in a federal criminal investigation, it can be an incredibly stressful and confusing time. Let’s walk through the basic process so you know what to expect.

Step 1: The Investigation Begins

Federal criminal investigations are usually initiated by federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, or ICE. They begin investigating when they have a reasonable suspicion that a federal crime has occured. This could happen in a few ways:

  • They recieved a tip or complaint about criminal activity
  • They uncovered evidence themselves during routine law enforcement activities
  • Another law enforcement agency referred the case to them

At this point, they start using investigative techniques like surveillance, undercover operations, witness interviews, search warrants, wiretaps, and examination of financial records. The goal is to determine if a federal crime happened and collect evidence to prove it.

Step 2: The Arrest or Indictment

If the investigation produces sufficient evidence, the next step is for you to be arrested and charged with a federal crime. An arrest can happen a couple different ways:

  • Law enforcement could arrest you by getting an arrest warrant signed by a federal judge. This means they have shown probable cause that you committed a crime.
  • They could also make an warrantless arrest if they directly observe you committing a crime.

After arrest, you’ll be taken into custody for booking, fingerprinting, DNA sample, mugshots, etc. You’ll also have an initial appearance before a judge within 24 hours.
Instead of an arrest, you could also be indicted by a federal grand jury. This means the prosecution presented evidence and the jury determined there’s probable cause you committed the crime. An indictment allows charges to be filed without arresting you first.

Step 3: Detention or Release

After your arrested and charged, the judge will decide whether to release you pending trial or keep you detained. The judge considers factors like:

  • The nature of the charges and your potential sentence
  • Your criminal history and record of appearing in court
  • Whether you are a danger to the community or a flight risk

If the charges aren’t serious and your not a flight risk, you may be released on your own recognizance. This means you promise to return to court without posting bail.
Otherwise, bail may be set requiring you to pay money upfront before being released. Bail is meant to incentivize you to show up for trial. If you miss court, you forfeit the money.
In serious cases like murder, terrorism, or prior flight from prosecution, you may be detained without bail until the trial finishes.

Step 4: Preliminary and Detention Hearings

Within 14 days after arrest, you’ll have a preliminary and detention hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the judge decides whether there’s probable cause that you committed the crime. If not, the charges are dismissed.
At the detention hearing, the judge hears arguments about whether to release you or keep you detained until trial. Both you and the prosecutor can present witnesses and evidence at these hearings.

Step 5: Grand Jury Indictment

Within 30 days after arrest, the prosecution must present your case to a federal grand jury to consider an indictment. A federal grand jury consists of 16 to 23 randomly selected citizens. The prosecution presents witnesses and evidence alleging you committed a crime. You and your lawyer cannot attend.
If 12+ jurors find probable cause for the charges, the grand jury issues an indictment authorizing your prosecution. If not, the charges are dropped.
Once indicted, you’ll be arraigned and asked to enter a plea at your next court appearance.

Step 6: Discovery and Pretrial Motions

After indictment, the case enters the pretrial phase. This involves prosecutors sharing evidence with your defense through discovery. You can also file pretrial motions arguing to suppress evidence, dismiss charges, or otherwise limit the prosecution. Common pretrial motions include:

  • Motion to suppress – argues evidence was obtained illegally and should be excluded
  • Motion in limine – seeks to exclude prejudicial evidence before its introduced at trial
  • Motion to dismiss – asserts charges should be dismissed due to lack of evidence, expired statute of limitations, or other defects

The judge will schedule hearings to resolve any contested pretrial motions before the case can proceed to trial. Most federal criminal cases resolve through plea deals before reaching trial.

Step 7: Plea Bargaining

Over 90% of federal criminal convictions result from plea bargains rather than trials. Plea deals are agreements where you plead guilty in exchange for concessions from the prosecutor like:

  • Dropping some charges
  • Recommending a lighter sentence
  • Letting you plead to a lesser charge

Plea deals avoid the time and expense of a trial. Prosecutors may offer you a deal before indictment or during pretrial, but there’s no guarantee. Consult your lawyer about the best time to start plea negotiations.

Step 8: Trial

If no plea agreement is reached, your case will proceed to a federal criminal trial before a judge and jury. Key steps in a federal criminal trial include:

  • Jury selection – the court and lawyers pick 12 impartial jurors plus alternates
  • Opening statements – each side outlines the case they’ll present
  • Witness testimony and cross-examination – each side questions witnesses and challenges credibility
  • Closing arguments – lawyers summarize the key evidence and argue why you’re guilty or not guilty
  • Jury instructions – the judge explains the law and charges the jury on how to deliberate
  • Jury deliberation – the 12 jurors discuss the case in private and attempt to reach a unanimous verdict
  • Verdict – the jury acquits or convicts you on each count

Federal criminal trials follow the Federal Rules of Evidence and Criminal Procedure. It’s critical to have an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer represent you.

Step 9: Sentencing

If your convicted, the judge will impose a sentence based on federal sentencing guidelines and statutory minimums and maximums. The final sentence depends on factors like:

  • Your criminal history and any prior convictions
  • Whether you accept responsibility and show remorse
  • Guideline enhancements that increase the sentence
  • Mandatory minimums required by statute
  • Guideline departures allowing a lower sentence in some cases

For many federal offenses, the judge has significant discretion to impose probation, home confinement, or imprisonment up to the statutory maximum. But some charges like drug trafficking carry lengthy mandatory minimums that limit flexibility.

Step 10: Post-Conviction Motions and Appeal

After sentencing, you can file post-conviction motions arguing for acquittal or a new trial based on alleged errors at trial. If denied, you can appeal your conviction and sentence to the federal Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. However, you must have objected on the record during trial to preserve most issues for appeal. And appellate courts rarely overturn convictions, applying a highly deferential standard favoring the trial court.
So in most cases, post-conviction motions and appeals provide limited options for relief after sentencing.

Facing a federal criminal investigation is daunting. But an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can guide you through the process and advocate for the best possible outcome. Don’t go it alone.


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