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Federal Charges

Federal Charges: An Overview for the Average Person

Federal charges are crimes that violate federal laws, as opposed to state laws or local ordinances. While most crimes are prosecuted at the state level, federal charges are brought by the U.S. government for offenses that involve issues of national interest, like civil rights, corruption, organized crime, and fraud against the government.

Understanding how federal charges work can be confusing for the average person. This article provides a simple overview of key things to know if you or a loved one is facing potential federal charges.

What Makes a Crime Federal?

There are a few main categories of federal crimes:

  • Offenses that only the federal government can prosecute, like treason, tax evasion, or counterfeiting currency
  • Crimes that occur on federal property, like national parks, military bases, or federal buildings
  • Offenses that cross state lines or international borders, like drug trafficking or human trafficking
  • Crimes that affect interstate commerce, like many fraud schemes or business crimes
  • Civil rights violations

So if a crime affects national interests, happens on federal land, involves multiple states, or violates someone’s civil rights, it can potentially be charged as a federal offense.

Key Steps in the Federal Criminal Process

Here are some of the main steps in a federal criminal case:


Federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, or Homeland Security investigate potential federal crimes. They gather evidence and build a case.

Charging Decision

A federal prosecutor reviews the investigation and decides whether to press charges. For felonies, the case must go to a grand jury, which decides if there’s enough evidence to indict.


The defendant appears in court and is informed of the charges against them. They enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

Pretrial Motions & Discovery

The defense and prosecution file pretrial motions on issues like suppressing evidence. They also exchange information through discovery.

Plea Bargaining

Many federal cases end in a plea bargain rather than trial. The defendant pleads guilty in exchange for concessions like lesser charges or a lighter sentence.


If no plea bargain is reached, the case proceeds to a trial by jury. The prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.


If convicted, the judge determines the penalty based on federal sentencing guidelines and statutory minimums or maximums.

Key Differences from State Courts

There are some key ways federal criminal prosecutions differ from state cases:

  • No parole in the federal system – offenders serve at least 85% of their sentence
  • More resources for federal prosecutors – the playing field is not even
  • Federal sentencing guidelines tend to be harsher
  • Federal prisons are often higher security than state prisons
  • Prosecutors have a very high conviction rate – over 90%

So in many ways, the federal criminal justice system is more rigid and unforgiving compared to state courts. The risks are higher if facing federal charges.

Common Federal Crimes

Some of the most common federal offenses prosecuted include:

  • Drug crimes – trafficking, distribution, importation
  • Firearms offenses – selling to prohibited possessors, transporting across state lines
  • Financial crimes – wire fraud, mail fraud, tax evasion, identity theft
  • Public corruption – bribery, extortion, kickbacks involving officials
  • Child pornography
  • Cybercrimes – hacking, online fraud schemes
  • Civil rights violations – hate crimes, excessive force by police

Federal prosecutors often go after cases involving interstate criminal organizations, major frauds against the government, or violations of national security.

Stages of the Federal Criminal Process

To understand federal charges, it helps to know the key stages of the process:

1. Investigation and Charging

Federal agencies like the FBI or IRS first investigate potential crimes. If they find evidence, they refer the case to federal prosecutors.

For felonies, the prosecutor presents evidence to a grand jury, which decides whether to issue an indictment. If indicted, an arrest warrant is issued.

For misdemeanors, prosecutors can file charges directly without a grand jury.

2. Arrest and Initial Hearing

Once under arrest, the defendant is brought before a judge promptly for an initial appearance. They are informed of the charges against them and their rights.

Conditions of release are determined – whether they will be detained pending trial or released on bail.

3. Arraignment

At the arraignment, charges are formally presented. Defendants enter a plea – guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

Not guilty pleas lead to further pretrial proceedings; guilty pleas may lead directly to sentencing.

4. Pretrial Motions and Discovery

Before trial, the defense and prosecution file motions to address procedural issues, like having evidence thrown out.

They also exchange information through discovery – sharing proposed evidence and witness lists.

5. Plea Bargaining

Many federal cases get resolved through plea bargaining. Defendants plead guilty in exchange for charging or sentencing concessions.

If no plea deal can be reached, the case proceeds to trial.

6. Trial

A federal criminal trial generally involves selecting a 12-person jury. Prosecutors present evidence seeking to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Defendants can challenge evidence and present their own witnesses. Juries return a unanimous verdict.

7. Sentencing

If convicted, a presentence report is prepared detailing the defendant’s background and offense conduct.

The judge determines the penalty based on federal sentencing guidelines and the case facts. Mandatory minimums or maximums may apply.

Hiring a Federal Criminal Lawyer

Facing potential federal charges is scary. The risks are high, and the criminal justice system is complex.

Having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer is critical. A knowledgeable attorney can navigate the system and develop an effective defense strategy.

Key benefits a lawyer provides include:

  • Helping you avoid charges or seek pretrial diversion where appropriate
  • Negotiating with prosecutors for plea deals or reduced charges
  • Challenging evidence through motions and hearings
  • Presenting the strongest case possible at trial
  • Ensuring fair sentencing practices
  • Filing appeals if necessary

Don’t go it alone if confronted by the formidable power and resources of federal law enforcement. Hire a skilled federal criminal defense lawyer to protect your rights and future. It’s a critical investment.


Being charged with a federal crime is a serious matter that can carry harsh punishments. The federal criminal justice system differs in key ways from state courts.

If you or a loved one is under federal investigation or facing federal charges, understanding the process and seeking expert legal help immediately gives you the best chance at the best possible outcome. Don’t wait to act.

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