Some offenses violate state law, and others violate federal law. Whether state or federal authorities have jurisdiction determines who will investigate and how the criminal justice process will proceed.

The federal criminal justice process typically follows this course.

Investigation

When the authorities learn of a federal offense, the appropriate federal agency or agencies launch an investigation. These may include the FBI, the Secret Service or the IRS, to name a few. A person may not receive notification that the authorities have opened an investigation against him or her. Instead, to first build a solid case, special agents may:

  • Interview third-party witnesses
  • Execute search warrants
  • Subpoena records
  • Obtain documents
  • Conduct surveillance
  • Review financial data

Arrest

Federal agents may arrest a suspect if they have an indictment from a grand jury or a search warrant from a magistrate. If they do not have an indictment or search warrant, there may be an initial appearance before a judge within 72 hours of the arrest. This magistrate will decide whether probable cause exists that the person arrested did commit a crime. Depending on the outcome, the agents may inform the defendant of his or her Miranda rights and take him or her into custody, or they may release the defendant until the conclusion of the trial.

Arraignment, discovery, motions process

At the arraignment, the defendant receives a copy of the charges and enters a plea. The defendant may agree to a plea bargain and forgo the trial stage. Otherwise, the discovery and motions process begins, during which the defendant and prosecution gather information from each other and the defendant files motions to assert rights.

Trial

The trial may be a bench trial involving just a judge, but usually, these trials take place before a jury. Because the government has the burden of proof in the case, the prosecutor will speak first and last at the trial. The defendant has the right to provide evidence and witnesses and to cross-examine witnesses provided by the government.

Sentencing

If the defendant receives a conviction, the probation officer conducts a background investigation, which involves speaking to the victim and investigating mitigating and aggravating factors. This information goes into a report provided to the court and used to determine the sentence.

Post-trial proceedings

After receiving a conviction and sentence, a person may appeal one or the other to a federal appeals court, or challenge one or the other in a habeas corpus proceeding.