Federal Criminal Prosecution—The Process

Federal Criminal Prosecution Process: Overview

When somebody is accused of a federal crime in the state of Hawaii, he or she will be subject to a formal process which begins with an arrest warrant and ends with a court verdict, sentencing, and finally, an opportunity to appeal the outcome.  

The federal court system will not follow this process exactly every time.  Some individuals may be exonerated before a trial even begins. Others will fight for an acquittal long after their trial, sometimes waiting years before the appeal is processed by the federal court system.  In this way, federal courts are similar to how offenses are processed by state courts. 

Also like state courts, federal courts will categorize offenses by felonies and misdemeanors.  A single misdemeanor charge warrants a maximum of 1 year in prison. Felony charges leave open the possibility of life in prison. 

You can find the steps to this process below.  And if you have any questions, feel free to contact Bilecki & Tipon LLLC for a free consultation into your federal criminal case. 

The Federal Prosecution Process

Step 1: An Arrest Is Made

Once federal law enforcement officials have enough evidence against someone, they will prepare a warrant of arrest to be signed by a judge.  The warrant is sent out to the Federal District Court along with an affidavit describing why a warrant should be granted. These documents are then filed by the Federal District Court and, if the complaint is strong enough, a judge will sign it and the warrant will be granted. 

Step 2: The Accused Is Granted an Initial Appearance Before a Judge

After the accused has been arrested, he or she will appear before a magistrate judge for an initial appearance prior to the trial.  The purpose of this is for the accused to understand his or her rights during the trial process. This includes a discussion regarding a defense attorney, preparation of a bond hearing, and rights afforded while in custody. 

A federal prosecutor will also be present during this hearing and may attempt to keep the person in custody, without bond. 

Step 3: Flight Risk Review and Detention Hearing: 

If the accused is in custody, a detention hearing must be provided within days of the arrest.  During this hearing, the magistrate judge will consider the prosecution’s request to keep the accused incarcerated throughout the trial.  If the judge believes the accused to be at risk of fleeing the state or the country, the accused will remain incarcerated until the outcome of the trial is known. 

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Step 4: Establishing Probable Cause with a Preliminary Hearing:

Shortly after arrest (often within two weeks), the accused will be allowed to appear for a preliminary hearing.  During the preliminary hearing, a judge will hear evidence and testimony by federal prosecutors explaining why there was probable cause for the arrest.  The accused may also have an attorney present to provide evidence against probable cause.

If the judge believes there is probable cause, the court will move forward by summoning a grand jury. 

Step 5: Summoning of a Grand Jury:

The courts will begin the selection of a Grand Jury, which is a collection of 23 citizens within a judicial district.  Of these 23 individuals, 16 must be present during the trial to conduct the court’s business. 

Step 6: Establishing Probable Cause before a Grand Jury

Once a complaint has been filed, an Assistant to the U.S. Attorney’s Office will offer evidence to the Grand Jury as to why there is probable cause for the arrest and for the subsequent trial.  Witnesses may be called and evidence may be allowed before the jury in an attempt to persuade them of probable cause. 

During this step of the process, the accused’s attorney may not offer evidence against probable cause or even appear in the courtroom. 

Step 7: Grand Jury Votes to Indict the Accused

For the accused to proceed toward trial, a Grand Jury must vote on the issue of probable cause.  If twelve or more jurors believe the federal government has established probable cause, the indictment, known as a True Bill, is given to the judge and the case continues to trial.  If fewer than 12 jurors find the evidence warrants probable cause, a No Bill will be handed to the judge and the trial will not proceed. 

This step is not necessary if the accused has pleaded guilty to his or her crimes. 

Step 8: Accused Read Charges in Arraignment

Once a Grand Jury agrees on probable cause, the accused—now the defendant—will appear before a Magistrate Judge with 10 days after indictment for what is known as an Arraignment hearing.  In Arraignment, the judge reads the charges against the defendant with his or her attorney present. A schedule for the trial will be prepared, including motion hearings and a date for opening statements. 

Step 9: Plea Agreement Is Prepared and Accepted/Denied

If the defendant pleads not guilty to his or her crimes, the defense and the prosecution will enter into talks regarding a possible plea deal.  With a plea deal, the defendant may be able to secure lesser sentencing from the prosecution if he or she pleads guilty to one or more of the alleged offenses. 

Should both parties come to an agreement, a judge will review the plea agreement and either accept it or deny it. 

Step 10: Trial Begins

During the trial, both the defense and the prosecution will provide opening statements, have opportunities to deliver forensic evidence and other physical evidence into the courtroom, and invite witnesses to take the stand.  Trials can last days, weeks, or even months depending on how much evidence or witness testimony is presented. 

Once all evidence and witness testimony is presented, the defense and prosecution will provide closing statements and the jury will make deliberations.  The trial will end with the defendant being found guilty, innocent, or in the case of a hung jury, a mistrial will occur.  

Step 11: Punishment Is Considered by a Judge and Federal Probation Officer 

If the defendant is found guilty, a Federal Probation Officer will review the case, the victims, and all the evidence, and make recommendations for sentencing to the judge.  The judge will then have time to go over the officer’s recommendations before ultimately deciding on final sentencing.

Step 12: Sentencing Is Delivered by a Judge

The defendant and his or her attorney will be brought into court to hear the final sentencing by a judge.  This may include a federal prison sentence, fines, and other punishments. 

Step 13: Defendant Has a Chance to Appeal  

Upon request, the defendant may appeal to have some or all of the verdict or the sentencing reviewed a second time.  The defendant often has a short timeframe to enter an appeal, often within 30 days of sentencing. 

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