The Federal Court system can be difficult to navigate and can, at times, cause frustration. The following is a basic overview of a case, which can last approximately 6 to 8 months.
At the beginning of a federal criminal case, the principal actors are the prosecutor, who is represented by the U.S. Attorneys' Office, and the Grand Jury. The U.S. Attorney represents the United States in criminal matters. The Grand Jury reviews evidence presented by the U.S. Attorney and decides whether there is sufficient evidence to bring charges in a criminal case.
A Magistrate Judge advises a defendant of the charges filed and determines whether there is probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed. Defendants who are unable to afford counsel are advised of their right to a court-appointed attorney. During this hearing, the Court also considers if it is appropriate for the defendant to be released to the community pending resolution of their case.
The U.S. Attorney may request the court detain a defendant pending trial. However, the defendant has a right to a detention hearing within three days. At the detention hearing, the Court will hear argument from counsel as to reasons for release or detention. If released, the defendant may be placed on pretrial supervision and must abide by the conditions of release which monitored by U.S. Probation. If detained, a defendant will be held in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service at a local facility. While in detention, if circumstances arise that would mitigate the defendant's risk of nonappearance or danger to the community, a defendant may file a motion with the Court to reconsider the prior order of detention.
Prior to a defendant’s appearance, a U.S. Probation Officer conducts a pretrial investigation, gathering and verifying important information about the defendant and the defendant’s suitability for pretrial release. The investigation begins when the officer is informed that a defendant has been arrested or has received a summons. As part of the investigation, the officer attempts to interview the defendant to learn more about the defendant’s ties to the community, living situation, and employment. Interviews of the defendant may take place in the U.S. Marshals' holding cell, the arresting law enforcement agency’s office, the local jail, or the pretrial services office. Prior to the interview the officer will advise a defendant of their rights by executing the Notice to Defendant form. The officer will not discuss the alleged offense, the defendant’s guilt or innocence, will not provide legal advice, or recommend an attorney. The officer will verify the information received from the defendant through collateral sources. If a defendant cannot be interviewed prior to an initial appearance, the officer will provide the defendant an opportunity to participate in a subsequent interview so that accurate information may be available to the Court.
Based on the investigation findings, the officer prepares a report that helps the Court make an informed decision regarding release or detention. If release is appropriate, the officer will recommend the least restrictive conditions that will reasonably assure the safety of the community and that the defendant appears at scheduled court hearings.