Understanding the Federal Court Process From Complaint & Indictment to Motions & Trial

A Federal criminal case can begin one of two ways – with the filing of a criminal complaint or of an indictment. A criminal complaint is a document prepared by the US Attorney’s office in conjunction with the law enforcement agency that investigated the case (FBI, IRS, Secret Service, etc.). It is presented to a Federal Magistrate Judge who determines if there is probable cause to know that a Federal crime was committed and that the person charged committed it. A person can’t be convicted solely based upon a criminal complaint. It is just a placeholder, allowing the government to begin a criminal case. Once it is filed and the defendant becomes aware of it, the government has 30 days to present the case to a Grand Jury for an indictment to enable the case to move forward. See Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rules 3-9.

An indictment is a formal criminal charge against an individual or entity handed up by a Grand Jury. A grand jury is a group of 23 citizens who are gathered by a federal court to hear preliminary evidence to determine if there is enough proof that a particular individual or company committed a Federal crime. It is a secret proceeding. If the Grand Jury determines that there is reasonable cause to believe a crime was committed and the person charged committed it, they vote an indictment. The US Attorney’s Office prepares the document and presents it to the court.

Once an indictment is filed with the court, the criminal case can proceed. By Federal law, once an indictment is filed and the defendant is aware of it, the case must proceed to trial within 70 days. In that time, according to Federal criminal procedure law, particularly Rule 16, the government must provide the defendant and his counsel with all the documents it intends on using in the case, as well as other materials. This is called Discovery. The attorney and his client will review this material and determine what the best options are. One possibility is that the attorney may file motions with the court – a formal request of the court indicating that the defense does not believe the government properly obtained the information, or requesting a court inquiry or hearing on a particular matter. Once all discovery is complete, motions have be ruled on and hearing have been held, the case can proceed to trial. At the trial, the government has the burden to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt – the highest standard under the law – to a unanimous jury of twelve citizens. The defendant will have an opportunity, through his attorney, to question the government’s witnesses and challenge the evidence, as well as present evidence on his own behalf. If the government does not prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – and convince all 12 jurors – the defendant must be acquitted, or found not guilty. This entire process can take anywhere from a few months to two or three years (or even longer) in some cases.

Anywhere along the process, a defendant may choose to plead guilty to the charges. Or, the government may wish to offer a plea bargain to the defendant. The decision to plead guilty or go to trial is a critical one that should be discussed between an attorney and his client. It may be that the evidence is overwhelming and your exposure post-trial and conviction far outweighs the benefits you may receive from a downward departure earlier in the process. Certainly, recognizing the flaws in your defense earlier rather than later can and will have a drastic impact on your liberty, career and family. Protect yourself and allow experience, knowledge and advocacy to work for you.

Call the criminal lawyers and former prosecutors at (212) 312-7129 or contact us online today.

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