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How the Federal Court Process Works

Federal court is different than state court. Here’s a brief summary of how the federal court process works, in general. There are exceptions to this but here are the basics. First, most people in federal court are indicted by a grand jury. Indictments are usually sealed, or secret, until everyone on the indictment is arrested and brought to court. So what often happens is that you won’t know you’re indicted, and you’ll be arrested by US Marshalls or other federal agents such as the FBI or DEA. You will be brought to court and in front of a Magistrate Judge. The prosecution may or may not ask that you be held in “detention” which means jail. If the Judge initially decides to hold you in detention, they will schedule a “detention hearing.”  

You have a right to fight detention. Unlike state court, you typically cannot bail out with money. At the detention hearing, your lawyer can present evidence and arguments to try to get the Judge to agree not to hold you in detention. The Judge is supposed to use the least restrictive means to reassure your appearance at court. Sometimes that means pretrial release with rules such as surrendering your passport, having electronic monitoring or drug testing, requiring you to wear a GPS bracelet, or requiring you to stay at a halfway house. Other times, the Judge determines you must stay in detention (jail) while your whole case is going on, which can take months or even more than a year. We have succeeded in getting clients out of detention even when the Judge initially determined detention was appropriate. Every case is unique of course. 

The Judge will arraign you (inform you of the charges) and typically we enter “not guilty” pleas to each charge in the beginning. 

The Judge sets deadlines for the prosecution and defense, such as when the prosecution (called the “Government”) must give the defense the discovery (the evidence), when the parties must file motions by, when a motions hearing will take place, and when a trial will be scheduled. 

After the defense sees the evidence, we can file motions like whether police violated your constitutional rights against an illegal search, seizure/arrest, questioning, or whether evidence or even charges should be thrown out.  

At a motions hearing, if we seek to suppress evidence, often law enforcement will be required to testify and we can cross examine them. We can also call witnesses in support of our motions. 

The Magistrate Judge will rule on the motions in what is called a Report and Recommendation. If we disagree with that ruling we can object to it, and then the other Judge (there are two levels of judges in federal court) can review the R & R and overrule it or agree with it. 

We have succeeded in having federal cases dismissed, but each case is unique, and of course the majority of cases are not dismissed. 

At some point in the case, the Government will make an offer. You are presumed innocent of each of the charges and you have a right to trial by 12 jurors. All 12 jurors must unanimously find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for you to be found guilty. You will be able to decide if you want to go to trial or want to negotiate a plea. We will give you recommendations and advocate for you in either instance.  

If you plead guilty or are found guilty at trial, you will have a presentence report interview that we will attend with you. That is used to make a report about your life so the judge has a better picture of your life history before you are sentenced. At a sentencing hearing, we argue for the best sentence possible and the prosecutor argues for the sentence they believe is appropriate. The Judge considers the arguments and the sentencing guidelines or any mandatory minimums, and sentences you. Sentences vary from probation where possible on up to life in prison.  

If you go to trial and are found not guilty of every charge you are typically home free. We have won at federal trial before, but federal court is difficult and every case is unique.  

There are instances where an appeal is possible after a conviction.  

Get an Experienced federal criminal defense lawyer Who Will Fight For You. Call Ryan Pacyga Criminal Defense:612-474-5420.

We have a lot of experience in many federal criminal matters. We have gone to federal trial and won. We have had federal cases dismissed. And we have negotiated pleas or fought at sentencing hearings and saved our clients many years in prison. Every case is unique, but we know what we are doing having handled federal criminal cases since approximately 2005.