- Initial appearance and arraignment
- Detention hearing
- Discovery and investigation
- Plea negotiations and change of plea
- Violations of probation or supervised release
- Appeals and other post-conviction relief
Soon after your arrest, you will be brought before a U.S. magistrate judge. The magistrate judge will make sure you are the person named in the complaint or arrest warrant. He will tell you of the charges against you, and explain your rights.
A Pretrial Services Officer will ask to interview you before your initial appearance. This person works for the court, and wants to get information about you so he or she can make a recommendation about whether you should be held in jail or released until your trial. If you talk to a Pretrial Services Officer before you see a lawyer, do not discuss the charges against you or any other illegal activity — what you say will be used against you. Both the judge and the prosecutor will see the Pretrial Services report.
DETENTION OR RELEASE:
After a hearing, the magistrate judge will decide whether to keep you in jail until your trial, or let you post bail, or release you on other conditions. Sometimes this decision is made at the initial appearance, but sometimes the lawyer asks that a separate detention hearing be held a few days later. This gives the lawyer and defense investigator time to develop a strong case for release.
At arraignment you will be formally notified of the charges against you. Either before the initial appearance or shortly after, the prosecutor will get an indictment from the grand jury. An indictment is a formal document that charges you with one or more federal crimes. These charges will be read to you at the arraignment, and you will be asked to enter a plea.
In almost all cases, you will plead “not guilty” and request a jury trial. You will have the chance to change your plea later, if you and your attorney decide that is best for you. A guilty plea gives up many important rights, and you should not do that until your attorney has been able to review all the evidence. A “not guilty” plea gives your legal team the chance to investigate and see if the case against you is any good. It preserves all your rights.
Before your case goes to trial, your attorney may try to negotiate a plea agreement with the prosecutor. Your attorney will not make any deals for you without your permission. But he or she will find out what kind of an offer the prosecutor is willing to make in your case. Then you can decide what to do, with your attorney’s advice.
Sometimes defendants cooperate with the government as part of a deal. Ask your lawyer if you have questions.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees you the right to a trial by jury, except in some misdemeanor cases. The trial date will usually be set when you are arraigned, but in almost every federal case this date is rescheduled. Federal trials can be complicated, and you must help your attorney and other members of your legal team with anything that they ask you. Your attorney has a lot of experience with trials. Some decisions, like whether to testify, are yours to make after advice from your attorney. Other decisions, involving legal strategy and the way that your case should be presented, are for your attorney to make. You will be kept informed about these decisions.
It is the prosecutor’s job at a trial to prove that you are guilty. It is not your job to prove you are innocent. If the prosecutor does not prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt, you must be found not guilty.
The U.S. Sentencing Guildelines
Whether you plead guilty or are found guilty after a trial, you will be sentenced about 10-11 weeks later. Your sentence will be determined by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The Guidelines are an advisory set of rules for all federal sentences. Your attorney will review your Guidelines with you, to show you how these rules apply to your case.
APPEALS AND OTHER POST-CONVICTION RELIEF:
Right To Appeal
In general, you have a right to appeal your conviction and/or your sentence. You need to file a notice of appeal within 10 days of the judgment against you. Your appeal will be decided by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, LA.
OTHER POST-CONVICTION RELIEF:
Just as state prisoners can file habeas corpus petitions, federal prisoners can file “motions attacking the sentence” under 28 U.S.C. §2255. A §2255 motion usually comes after an appeal, and usually claims that your constitutional rights were violated.