What to Expect in a Federal Criminal Case

FBI and CSI agents - Federal criminal investigation concept

Facing criminal charges in federal court is intimidating and scary. Any criminal case, and a federal criminal case, in particular, is complicated. It can be helpful and reassuring to understand how a criminal case works, and what to expect.

If you believe you are under investigation or have been charged with a crime, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible.

Every case is unique, and your attorney is the best source of information when it comes to questions about the charges you are facing and how your case will proceed. But there are general principles that apply and a fairly consistent way in which a federal criminal case will proceed.

Federal Criminal Investigation Process

A criminal investigation is the first step in a federal white-collar criminal case. Law enforcement agents (FBI, IRS, DEA, etc.) work with prosecutors to investigate possible violations of federal laws, and to identify and collect evidence related to the alleged crime. Frequently, they will appear at your doorstep to advise you that you are either a target or subject of an investigation. In most cases, they will attempt to gain your trust by assuring you that you can help yourself by speaking with them. Beware - anything and everything you tell them can and will be held against you. It is essential to contact a federal criminal defense lawyer if this happens to you.

A federal criminal case formally begins with either a criminal complaint or indictment. These documents identify the charges the prosecutor intends to prove. However, they are not evidence. The evidence is derived from the investigation that preceded the filing of the formal charges. Various investigative tools are used in prosecuting a case, such as wiretaps, recorded conversations, physical surveillance, monitoring the suspect’s online activities, reviewing financial documents, issuing grand jury subpoenas for testimony and documents, seizing materials such as computers and phones through the use of search warrants, and interviewing witnesses.

During the investigation, law enforcement agents work closely with federal prosecutors. The prosecutor offers legal guidance, while the law enforcement agents gather evidence and interview witnesses. The prosecutor will assist law enforcement agents in obtaining search warrants, subpoenas, and other legal documents.

Ultimately it is the prosecutor who evaluates the evidence and decides whether to bring federal criminal charges.

Arrest, Miranda Warnings, and the Right to Remain Silent

In certain cases, once law enforcement agents believe they have enough evidence for a conviction, they will place the suspect under arrest. The suspect will be read his Miranda rights, which include the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, and being advised that anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law.

If you are placed under arrest, you have a right to assert your right to remain silent and to request to speak to your attorney.

After an arrest, a criminal defendant will be scheduled to appear at a series of court hearings.

Initial Appearance in Federal Court and Bail

Your first opportunity to appear in court is known as your initial appearance. During the initial appearance, the judge will conduct a brief hearing to decide whether to release you from custody. You will receive a copy of the charges against you, or hear them read aloud in court.

If the judge decides to release you, the judge will set a bail amount. In some cases, bail is agreed upon by the prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. Other times, bail will be contested and a detention hearing will be necessary. At that time, the government will have to prove that the accused is either a risk of flight or a danger to the community in order to prevent release on bail. If you are released pretrial, the judge will impose certain restrictions and conditions of release. If you violate these conditions of release, you can be arrested again, bail can be revoked, and you could face new, additional charges based on the violation of the bail conditions.

Grand Jury Indictment

When a suspect is indicted, there is no complaint or arrest warrant. Instead, the prosecutor presents evidence to a Grand Jury, who will decide whether there is probable cause to believe that you committed a crime. Grand Jury proceedings are secret, and a suspect does not have the right to appear at Grand Jury proceedings. If the Grand Jury returns an indictment, your case will be assigned to a district court judge.

Sometimes, after consulting with a criminal defense lawyer, you may wish to forfeit your right to be indicted and instead have the charges brought through an information. For strategic reasons, you may choose to forfeit your right to be indicted and proceed by information if you intend to plead guilty to the charges pursuant to a guilty plea agreement.

What Happens After an Indictment?

If your case proceeds on an indictment or information, you will be arraigned. At the arraignment, you will be given a copy of the charges against you, or hear them read aloud in court. You will be asked to plead guilty or not guilty. In most cases, a criminal defendant will plead not guilty at the arraignment. Criminal defendants often enter a not guilty plea both when they intend to contest the charges and take their case to trial, and if your lawyer is in the process of negotiating with the prosecutor and is working out the final details of a plea bargain.

Pre-Trial Motions and Hearings of Motions to Suppress Evidence

Based on the unique circumstances of your case, your lawyer will file various pre-trial motions. Pre-trial motions often address problems with the evidence the prosecution intends to introduce or ask that the case against you be dismissed outright.

A common pre-trial motion is a Motion to Suppress Evidence. A Motion to Suppress challenges the constitutionality of the manner in which law enforcement agents obtained evidence. Another is whether the evidence the prosecution intends to present is relevant to the charges against you. Your lawyer may also use a pre-trial motion to learn more about the government’s witnesses and how they will testify at trial. In many cases, the judge will hold a hearing to address the content of pre-trial motions.

If the judge finds that evidence was illegally obtained, is not relevant to the charges against you, or is unfairly prejudicial, the judge will order that the evidence be excluded from trial. A successful motion to suppress evidence can mean the difference between a guilty verdict and having the case against you thrown out. If your lawyer successfully challenges the evidence against you, it is increasingly more difficult for the prosecution to secure a conviction.

The Use of Experts to Reduce the Amount of Loss

In defending a federal criminal case, it is often necessary for the defense to use forensic experts to prove a variety of issues such as the trail of funds, the amount of loss, etc. In most federal white collar cases, the government claims an excessive amount of loss and it is incumbent upon the defense lawyer to find a factual and legal basis to reduce the amount of loss. The amount of loss determines the amount of time that you will face, in addition to the amount of restitution and forfeiture judgments that will be entered. This is a critical part of the defense strategy.

Plea Bargaining and Negotiating with the Prosecution

In the preliminary stages of representation, your lawyer will also engage in discussions regarding a plea agreement. The vast majority of federal criminal cases are resolved before trial through a successful plea bargain. In white collar cases, an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can significantly reduce the amount of loss that determines the amount of jail time, restitution and forfeiture, that you are facing, through skillful plea negotiations. In drug cases, a plea bargain is often the result of successful motions to suppress evidence that result in evidence being excluded.


If no plea agreement is reached, your case will proceed to trial. Leading up to the trial, the government will produce pre-trial discovery, wherein some of the evidence they intend to introduce at trial is turned over to the defense. However, they often do not produce everything, holding back key evidence until the last minute or they do not produce it at all. An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can recognize this problem and request production of the missing evidence. If the government refuses, motions for production and/or motions to compel the necessary evidence must be filed by the defense.

Jury Selection

At trial, the lawyers will begin by choosing a jury. The judge will ask the jurors questions to determine whether they are suitable for your case. In most cases, the lawyers will also have an opportunity to ask the jurors questions. Ultimately, 12 jurors will be on the panel, with 2 to 6 alternate jurors.

Opening Statements

The trial begins with opening statements. The prosecution has the burden of proving you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the prosecution bears the burden of proof, the prosecutor will go first. During opening statements, the prosecutor will explain the evidence that will be introduced to try to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Once the prosecutor completes the opening statement, your defense lawyer will offer her opening statement, describing why the evidence does not prove that you are guilty.

Witness Testimony and Presentation of Evidence

Once opening statements are complete, the prosecutor begins presenting evidence. The presentation of evidence is typically done through witnesses who will offer testimony, and identify documents, video or audiotapes, and other items that will be introduced as evidence. Your criminal defense lawyer can challenge the introduction of evidence, object to questions, and question witnesses through cross-examination.

Once the prosecutor has completed the introduction of evidence, the prosecution rests. It is now time for the defense to present its case.

Defense Case

A criminal defendant has no burden to present any evidence at trial. In fact, a defense lawyer could simply argue that the prosecution failed to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and sit down. But in many cases, your criminal defense lawyer will present evidence that shows why you are not guilty. After your criminal defense lawyer questions witnesses and presents evidence, the prosecutor will have a chance to question the witness on cross-examination.

Closing Arguments

Once both sides have presented their evidence, the lawyers will make closing arguments, also known as a summation. The prosecutor goes first, explaining why they believe you should be found guilty. Then your defense lawyer presents her argument about why the prosecution failed to meet its burden, and why you should be found Not Guilty.

After closing arguments, the jury will retire to the deliberation room to decide whether to return a verdict of Guilty or Not Guilty. If you are found Not Guilty, you will be acquitted and released. If you are found Guilty, your case will move to sentencing.

Federal Sentencing

If you plead guilty or were found guilty at trial, you will be sentenced. The Probation Department will interview you and prepare a Presentence Report (PSR) that identifies the applicable Federal Sentencing Guidelines and recommends a sentence. Your sentence may include repayment of stolen money, prison time, fines, drug or mental health treatment, or community service. A PSR may also make recommendations about the terms and conditions of probation.

Appeal Conviction in Federal Criminal Case

If you and your lawyer believe there were errors made at trial, you have the right to appeal your conviction, your sentence, or both. If you wish to appeal, you must file your notice of appeal within 14 days after the trial was concluded.

On appeal, a panel of three judges will review your case to determine whether any errors were made and, if so, the extent to which they affected the outcome of the case.

Hope Lefeber: Federal Criminal Case Defense in New York City

A federal criminal case is a long and complicated process, and the stakes are high. If you are under investigation or have been charged with a crime in federal court, you need an experienced federal criminal defense attorney on your side.

Federal criminal defense attorney Hope Lefeber has been defending people accused of crimes in federal court for more than 30 years. A former enforcement attorney with the United States Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms. Lefeber knows how the federal government prosecutes federal criminal cases. She fights hard to ensure that her clients’ rights are protected and that justice is done.

Ms. Lefeber has earned a reputation among her colleagues in the federal bar, federal court judges, and her clients as a fierce defender of her client’s rights. She meticulously prepares every case she takes on and knows how to get results. Ms. Lefeber has a deep knowledge of federal criminal law and has successfully defended executives at Fortune 500 companies, businessmen and women, lawyers, doctors, and other high-profile clients who have been faced with federal criminal charges. She frequently works with psychological, psychiatric, and forensic experts in her pursuit of justice.

If you have been charged with a crime in federal court, contact Hope Lefeber today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.