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In the United States, criminal prosecutions can be held at either the state or the federal level. Federal criminal cases can begin when one of two scenarios occurs. The first is that an individual files a criminal complaint. The second is that an individual is indicted for a crime.
Criminal complaints are documents prepared by the United States Attorney’s office alongside whatever federal law enforcement agency conducted the investigation of the case. Some of the most common entities are the Secret Service, FBI, and IRS. The complaint will be presented to a federal judge. When the judge reviews the facts outlined in the complaint, they will decide whether there is an indicator that a federal crime has been committed by the person being charged.
It’s impossible to convict a person based purely on a criminal complaint. The complaint isn’t a case against them, and the judge’s determination of probable cause isn’t the same as a guilty verdict. The judge is merely determining whether there’s enough evidence that the person might have committed the crime to investigate further. When the complaint has been approved and filed, the defendant will be notified, and the government is given thirty days to present their findings to a grand jury. If the grand jury decides there’s probable cause, they can indict the person.
When an entity or individual is indicted, a formal criminal charge has been brought against them. Indictments are handed out by grand juries. Grand juries are twenty-three citizens who are tasked with hearing preliminary evidence in federal court. These people will then deliberate about whether sufficient evidence has been provided to show that a crime might have been committed. The deliberations of a grand jury are held in secret. When the grand jury decides there’s enough evidence to proceed with a criminal charge, they will vote for an indictment. The office of the US Attorney will prepare the indictment document and present it to the federal court.
When the indictment has been filed, there’s now a clear way for the criminal case to proceed. Federal law states that after the filing of an indictment and the awareness of the defendant, there is a seventy day period in which the case must go to trial. This short time period is a very busy one. The government is required to provide the defendant and the defense attorney with all of the gathered evidence and other materials.
Once all the evidence has been provided to the attorney, they and their client will review the details of the case. The attorney will explain the scope of the situation, the options going forward, and the strategies they might employ. Each case will be slightly different, so an experienced lawyer who can analyze and plan is essential.
One of the options is for the defense attorney to file court motions. A motion is a formal request that the court provides an inquiry regarding a particular matter or investigates the methods by which certain documents were obtained. This motion is typically filed if there’s a suspicion that the information was acquired through means that aren’t legal. Illegally acquired information is not admissible to be used in court.
When the discovery is complete, the court has ruled on all filed motions, and preliminary hearings have been held, the case will go to trial. Trials in the federal court are prosecuted by the government. The federal government is responsible for proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant has committed the crime. All federal prosecutions are tried before a panel of twelve jurors.
In addition to the prosecution presenting their case, the defense will also have a chance to question the prosecution’s witnesses, challenge the evidence, provide new evidence in the defense, and call their own witnesses.
Rather than being a majority vote, the panel of jurors cannot come back with a guilty verdict until all twelve of them are certain that the defendant is guilty. If even one of the jurors is unconvinced, they must either continue deliberating until all are in agreement, or they must give a not guilty verdict. Though the trial process begins within seventy days of the filed motion, the actual trial can last for anywhere from a couple months to several years. It all depends on the crime being tried, the amount of evidence, and the number of witnesses.
At any point during this process, the defendant has the option to plead guilty. This means that they admit to having committed the crime and submit to the sentencing of the court. There are also some cases in which the federal government offers a plea bargain, in which the defendant has the option to plead guilty to lesser charges and serve a reduced sentence.
All available options should be discussed between the defendant and their attorney.