How Federal Criminal Lawyers Conduct Investigations and Discovery


Federal Criminal Trials: How Federal Criminal Lawyers Conduct Investigations and Discovery

When someone is suspected of committing a federal crime, there’s a whole process that happens before they ever set foot in a courtroom. Federal criminal lawyers on both sides – the prosecution and the defense – do a lot of work investigating the case and sharing information through something called “discovery.” This article will walk through the basics so you can understand how it all works.

The Investigation

First things first – how does the government find out about potential federal crimes in the first place? There’s a few main ways:

  • A victim or witness reports the crime to the FBI or other federal law enforcement.
  • A federal agency like the SEC notices suspicious activity in records they review.
  • An informant tips off the government about criminal activity.

Once the feds catch wind of a possible federal crime, the investigating agents start digging in. This can mean:

  • Interviewing witnesses and suspects
  • Obtaining search warrants to gather physical evidence or documents
  • Subpoenaing documents from third parties
  • Working with informants to secretly gather information
  • Conducting surveillance on suspects
  • And more!

The investigators build up a case and eventually pass it off to federal prosecutors if they believe they have enough evidence to charge someone with a federal crime.

The Federal Grand Jury

Here’s a little-known fact about the federal criminal justice system – the Constitution says felony charges can only be brought by a grand jury. What is a federal grand jury? It’s a group of citizens who review evidence to decide if there’s probable cause to charge someone.

Federal prosecutors will present witnesses and documents to the grand jury to show their evidence. The grand jury isn’t determining guilt or innocence – just if there’s enough evidence to move forward with formal charges. If they think there is, they issue an indictment allowing the case to proceed.

The Arraignment

Once a defendant is indicted, they have an initial court hearing called an arraignment. This is when they are officially informed of the charges against them and enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The judge also addresses bail at the arraignment.


Now we get to a very important phase called discovery. Discovery is when the prosecution and defense share information and evidence about the case. Why is this important? A trial is supposed to be a search for the truth, so it’s only fair if both sides get to see the evidence.

There are rules about what needs to be shared during discovery in a federal criminal case:

  • The prosecution must share any statements the defendant made to investigators.
  • They must allow the defense to inspect physical evidence they plan to use.
  • They must share witness names and any witness statements.
  • They must provide copies of documents, records, photographs, and recordings related to the case.
  • The defense also has to share documents and evidence they plan to use at trial.

Discovery starts right after arraignment and continues up until the trial. The lawyers on both sides have an ongoing duty to share new evidence as it comes in.

Why Is Discovery Important for the Defense?

Discovery is crucial for the defense for a few reasons:

  • It allows them to know the prosecution’s case and prepare a defense strategy.
  • It may reveal weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
  • It may uncover evidence that proves the defendant’s innocence.
  • It prevents unfair surprises at trial that could hurt the defense.

Defense lawyers dig deep into the discovery materials to build the best case they can. It’s an essential part of mounting a strong defense.

Pretrial Motions

Before the trial, the defense may file pretrial motions asking the judge to rule on certain issues. For example, they may argue to exclude evidence from trial that was obtained illegally. The judge holds hearings to resolve these motions.

Plea Bargaining

At any point before trial, the prosecution and defense can negotiate a plea bargain. This means the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for some concession from the prosecutor – usually a lesser charge or lighter sentence recommendation. Plea bargains resolve most federal criminal cases.

The Trial

If no plea bargain is reached, the case will go to trial before a federal judge and jury. Both sides present witnesses, evidence, and arguments to make their case. The jury (or judge in a bench trial) determines if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

The verdict is decided “beyond a reasonable doubt” – the jury can only convict if the evidence leaves no reasonable doubt of guilt. This high standard protects the innocent from wrongful convictions.


Federal criminal cases have many moving parts! The investigative and discovery processes aim to uncover the truth before trial. This ensures fairness for both the prosecution and the defense. While the system isn’t perfect, the safeguards of discovery and due process are absolutely vital for justice.


[1] Steps in the Federal Criminal Process, U.S. Department of Justice.

[2] Discovery, U.S. Department of Justice.

[3] A Brief Description of the Federal Criminal Justice Process, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

[4] What is Discovery in The Federal Criminal Law System?, Barone Defense Firm.

[5] Discovery Process is Federal Criminal Cases, Federal Crime Attorney.

[6] Criminal Cases, United States Courts.