Federal Court Process

Charging Process

At the beginning of a federal criminal case, the principal actors are the U.S. attorney (the prosecutor) and the grand jury. The U.S. attorney represents the United States in most court proceedings, including all criminal prosecutions. The grand jury reviews evidence presented by the U.S. attorney and decides whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a charge. Most federal cases begin with an “indictment.” An indictment is the formal written statement issued by the grand jury and signed by a federal prosecutor accusing one or more people with a crime. Although most federal defendants appear after having been indicted by a grand jury, defendants can be charged in a criminal complaint or an information.

Initial Appearance

At an initial appearance, a judge advises the defendant of the charges filed and the right to counsel. Defendants who are unable to afford counsel are advised of their right to a court-appointed attorney. At an initial appearance, a judge typically schedules an arraignment and detention hearing within three business days. 

Detention Hearing

When the government moves for detention at the initial appearance, a judge generally will set a detention hearing within three business days. At a detention hearing, a judge hears from the parties and decides whether to release the defendant on bail or to detain the defendant in jail. Defendants released into the community before trial may be required to obey certain restrictions, such as home confinement or drug testing, and to make periodic reports to a pretrial services officer to ensure appearance at trial.

Arraignment

The defendant enters a plea to the charges brought by the U.S. attorney at a hearing known as an arraignment. The defendant is read or given a copy of the charge and is asked to plead guilty or not guilty. Typically at an arraignment, a defendant enters a plea of not guilty. The Court will then set a docket call/jury trial date in accordance with the Speedy Trial Act.

Pleading Guilty or Going to Trial

If a defendant decides to plead guilty, a change of plea hearing will be scheduled for entry of a guilty plea. If a defendant decides to proceed to trial, the Court will schedule a trial date. In a criminal trial, the burden of proof is on the government. Defendants do not have to prove their innocence. Instead, the government must provide evidence to convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If a defendant is found not guilty, the charges are dismissed, and the defendant is released.

Sentencing

After a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty at trial, the judge then determines the defendant’s sentence by considering the statutory factors at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) as well as the federal sentencing guidelines issued by the United States Sentencing Commission. The Court’s probation office prepares a Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) for the Court prior to sentencing that applies the sentencing guidelines to the individual defendant and the crime for which he or she has been convicted.

A sentence may include probation, time in prison with an additional period of supervised release, a fine to be paid to the government, or restitution to be paid to crime victims. The Court’s probation officers assist the Court in enforcing any conditions that are imposed as part of a criminal sentence. The supervision conditions also may involve services such as substance abuse testing and treatment programs and alternative detention options.

Appeals Process

A defendant who has been convicted in the Western District of North Carolina has a right to appeal the conviction and sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. A litigant who files an appeal, known as an “appellant,” must show the Court of Appeals that the trial court made a legal error that affected the decision in the case. The Court of Appeals also may review the factual findings of the trial court. The Court of Appeals makes its decision based on the record of the case established by the trial court. It does not receive additional evidence or hear witnesses.

The appellant presents legal arguments to the panel, in writing, in a document called a “brief.” In the brief, the appellant tries to persuade the judges that the trial court made an error, and that its decision should be reversed. On the other hand, the party defending against the appeal, known as the “appellee,” tries to show why the trial court decision was correct, or why any error made by the trial court was not significant enough to affect the outcome of the case.

Appeals are decided by panels of three judges working together. The Court of Appeals decision usually will be the final word in the case, unless it sends the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings, or the parties ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. In some cases the decision may be reviewed en banc, that is, by a larger group of judges (usually all) of the Court of Appeals.

A litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the highest court of a state, may file a petition for a “writ of certiorari,” which is a document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court, however, does not have to grant review. The Court typically will agree to hear a case only when it involves an unusually important legal principle, or when two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently. When the Supreme Court hears a case, the parties are required to file written briefs and the Court may hear oral argument.

Supervised Release and Violations

Many federal offenses carry a term of supervised release. Supervised release is similar to probation - a defendant must regularly report to the U.S. Probation Office, and comply with various conditions. It is important to try to establish a good working relationship with the probation officer to avoid problems that could lead to violations. If the Court finds that a defendant has violated the conditions of supervised release, the Court may revoke the supervised release and sentence the defendant to a period of incarceration and additional supervised release.