Federal Case ABCs

A federal case in the Southern District of California starts pretty quickly, with numerous hearings set almost right after a person is arrested. The following is an outline of how a federal case proceeds and the various hearings that can be set along the way.

A. Initial Appearance

After someone is arrested on federal charges, they will be brought before a United States Magistrate for an initial appearance. At this hearing, the Magistrate Judge will identify the charges that are alleged in the arrest warrant or complaint that was filed and they will also explain certain rights that every Defendant in the United States has when they are facing criminal charges. If a Defendant cannot afford an attorney, they will have an attorney appointed to represent them. This is true even if a Defendant or their family wishes to hire an attorney for the case.

B. Pretrial Services Interview

In most federal cases, a United States Pretrial Services Officer will request an interview. Please understand that this person works for the Court and will be getting information that is necessary to make a recommendation about whether a person should remain in jail or be released on bond. Please request to speak to a lawyer before you do a pretrial services interview if possible. Anything that is told to a pretrial services officer will be provided to the Court and the United States Attorney so it is important to not discuss any details of what happened.

C. Detention Hearing

The detention hearing will be held within a matter of days after an arrest. At this hearing a Court will determine whether to set bail in a case. Factors taken into consideration include the type of crime the Defendant is charged with, criminal history and ties to the community. It is important that family members reach out to the Defendant’s attorney before this hearing so that counsel can discuss bail and begin working through the process of finding someone to post bail. There are numerous steps to getting bail set in a federal case and it helps immensely to identify who can post bail and where a Defendant can live.

Bail is not granted in all cases. Sometimes in the Southern District of California, we will advise a client to stipulate to detention “without prejudice.” This can provide additional time to examine bail and whether there is a logical way to present facts to a Court that will allow bail to be granted. If bail is set, it can take several days up to a week to get all documents together to have bail posted.

D. Preliminary Hearing or Indictment Filed

There are two ways that a federal criminal case proceeds. The first is through the filing of a Complaint that becomes the charging document in a case. The second is through an Indictment issued by a Grand Jury.

In all cases where a Complaint is the charging instrument, a Defendant has the right to a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is a procedural hearing to determine whether there was probable cause to file the Complaint. In the vast majority of cases, we will advise a client to waive this hearing because there is almost no chance to win a case at this stage. It is a very low standard for the United States to meet and in the Southern District of California the United States will commonly indict a Defendant prior to a preliminary hearing even if a Defendant attempts to proceed with the hearing.

E. Indictment or Information Filed

A federal case cannot move forward until a Grand Jury meets and issues an Indictment. This is true in all cases. In the vast majority of federal cases filed in the Southern District of California, a Defendant stipulates to an Information being filed unless they were already indicted.

F. Arraignment Hearing

At the arraignment hearing a Defendant is “arraigned” on the charges contained in the indictment or information. The Court will enter a plea of not guilty on a Defendant’s behalf and a Motion Hearing/Trial Setting Hearing will be scheduled.

G. Discovery Phase of Case

Following the Arraignment Hearing, the United States typically produces discovery. This might include all or some of what will be necessary to examine a case further. A “Brady Order” is also issued which requires the government to produce all exculpatory evidence without any request by a Defendant.

The discovery phase is not something that happens quickly. Sometimes initial discovery is produced and then several more rounds of discovery are produced depending on how complicated the facts of a case might be. This can amount to thousands of pages of documents and hours of video and audio footage.

The discovery phase can include formal discovery requests being sent by the Defendant to the United States via a discovery motion.

H. Motion Hearing / Trial Setting Hearing

At this hearing, the District Court will hear any pretrial motions that have been filed by the parties. A trial will also be scheduled if that is how the case is proceeding. If a plea is accepted, this hearing is cancelled.

I. Plea Offer and Federal Sentencing Guidelines

In almost every case the United States will make a plea offer. This typically comes as an initial offer through email that calculates the possible sentence of a client using the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In most cases, these are sent within a few weeks after the case is filed, or even faster if the case is less complicated. A formal plea offer needs to be signed by a client so that a Change of Plea Hearing can be scheduled. In the Southern District of California, a Rule 11 Waiver is also signed, which allows a U.S. Magistrate to accept the plea (instead of a District Judge).

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are used to determine a baseline for sentences in federal court. A base offense level is calculated based on the crime that occurred and then there can be increases and decreases to that level based on factors in the case. Criminal history of a client is also used and can significantly increase the amount of time someone is facing.

J. Change of Plea Hearing

If a plea is accepted by a client, a Change of Plea Hearing is scheduled. At this hearing, the Court will run through the facts of a case and the various aspects of a plea agreement. Basically, the Court is trying to make sure there is a sufficient basis for the plea and that a Defendant does want to accept a plea. The judge will then decide whether to accept the plea and will make various findings through an order that is issued.

K. Trial

Trial is what we have all seen on TV – a jury is presented with evidence in your case and makes a determination of guilt or innocence. This only occurs if a Defendant chooses to turn down the plea offer from the United States.

L. Presentence Investigation and Sentencing Hearing

After a Change of Plea Hearing or a guilty verdict, a Sentencing Hearing is scheduled. In most cases a Court orders the United States Probation to prepare a presentence investigation report (“PSR”). This report details much of a client’s life history and also provides details about prior crimes, drug use, and facts of the case. In many cases that the PSR is a very useful tool in making an argument for decreasing a sentence.

At the Sentencing Hearing the Court will make a calculation of the sentencing guideline range and hear arguments from counsel regarding sentencing. The Court will also let a Defendant speak on their own behalf. The Court then determines the sentence.

Get Help With Your Federal Criminal Case Today

If you or a loved one have been charged with a federal crime, contact an experienced attorney from Rist Law Office to discuss your case. Our office represents criminal defendants throughout all federal courts in California. For more information or to speak to an attorney, call us at (619) 377-4660.

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