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There are several ways an individual can be charged with a federal crime including the commission of bank robberies, hate crimes, drug crimes, identity theft, kidnapping, child pornography, counterfeiting, computer crimes, conspiracy and so on. More often than not, most of the cases that are prosecuted in federal criminal court are felonies backed by evidence obtained by federal government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), United States Secret Service (USSS), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and so on. Given the severity of federal charges, their penalties, and the skill and experience of the attorneys who prosecute them, having an understanding of the federal criminal process is extremely important.

If you are charged with a federal offense in the state of Virginia, your case will be heard either in the Eastern District Court of Virginia or the Western District Court of Virginia. Since our firm services the Northern Virginia area, the focus of this discussion on the federal criminal process will pertain to the district in which it lies: The Eastern District Court of Virginia (EDVA).

The EDVA prioritizes the prosecution of the following issues: national security, violent crime, cybercrime, financial crime, public corruption, civil rights, and narcotics trafficking. It does so by following the eight-phase criminal process: (1) investigation, (2) arrest or indictment, (3) initial appearance/arraignment, (5) discovery, (5) plea bargaining, (6) pretrial motions, (7) trial, and (8) verdict and sentencing.

The Investigation

EVDA’s criminal division works with a multitude of federal agencies who spearhead the investigations into these, as well as other, offenses. The investigation process consists of gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and collecting information to determine whether a crime has been committed and, if so, who is ultimately responsible.

Arrest or Indictment

If the investigation phase yielded sufficient evidence that a federal crime has been committed and an individual has been named as the likely perpetrator, the federal prosecutor may seek an arrest warrant or present the case to a grand jury. After hearing the prosecutor’s evidence, if the grand jury determines that there is enough probable cause to charge the individual with the crime, the grand jury will issue an indictment and the accused will be formally charged.

Initial Appearance/Arraignment

Following the arrest or indictment, the accused is brought before a magistrate judge for an initial appearance/arraignment. During this formal proceeding, the magistrate will read the charges that the accused faces and make sure that they understand the nature of the allegation. The magistrate will then inform the accused of their right to an attorney and ask whether they wish to hire one privately, have the court appoint a public defender, or proceed without any assistance. At this point, the accused must enter their plea of guilty, not guilty, or some other accepted declaration. If the plea involves an admission of guilt, the case will skip right to the sentencing phase. However, if the accused pleas in a way so as to maintain their innocence, then the case will proceed to the trial phase.

The last decision the magistrate must make during this phase is whether or not the accused should be released on bail pending trial. The decision to impose bail and the amount at which to set bond is dependent upon several factors. These factors include the risk that the accused will flee before trial and the potential danger that they may pose to the community at large if released. If bail is granted but the accused cannot pay the money, the magistrate may order the defendant to be remanded into the custody of the U.S. Marshals pending trial.


Before either party can go to trial or enter into a plea bargain, both the prosecution and the defense need to familiarize themselves with the facts of the case. This involves talking to witnesses, studying evidence, anticipating trial problems, and developing trial strategy. At the close of this phase, the prosecution and defense enter into an exchange of information, providing the other with copies of materials and evidence that they intend to use at trial.

Plea Bargaining

At any point during the process, the prosecution and defense may engage in plea bargaining and enter into an agreement. Negotiations involve some way to ensure that both parties benefit from the bargain and that the end agreement is mutually acceptable. More often than not, the accused pleads guilty to a lesser charge or offers to cooperate with the prosecution in exchange for reduced charges or sentencing recommendations. The primary benefit of plea bargains are the agreements themselves as it is a means to resolve the case without having to go to trial.

Pretrial Motions

A motion is a means to request that the court make a decision on a certain issue before trial. Either party may file a motion or respond to the other’s motion. The most common pre-trial motions include a motion to dismiss the charges, a motion to suppress certain evidence, and a motion to change the venue of the trial itself. It is important to pay attention to which motions are filed and how the court rules because the decisions may affect the trial, the courtroom, the defendant, and even the admissibility of evidence.

The Trial

If the case proceeds to trial, each side will get to present its own evidence and have an opportunity to challenge that offered by the other. The prosecution will be the first to make its arguments and call witnesses, followed by the defense’s opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. Then, the defense will present its counterarguments and call its witnesses before the prosecution can begin its cross-examination. After assessing the evidence and arguments made by each side, the factfinder, either a judge or jury, will determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Verdict and Sentencing

If the accused is found guilty, the must return to court to be sentenced. The judge will consult any mandatory minimum and maximums as well as sentencing guidelines when deciding punishment. The judge will also take note of the presentence report and any statements made by the victims or attorneys. Finally, the judge may consider a variety of aggravating or mitigating factors, such as prior convictions, the nature of the offense itself, remorse, and so on.

One last important note with regard to sentencing is that while many states have abolished the death penalty, it is still permissible for crimes punished at the federal level. The death penalty may not, however, be imposed against individuals under the age of eighteen at the time the crime was committed nor against those deemed intellectually disabled.

Consulting an Attorney

Hopefully now that you know more about what it means to face a criminal charge at the federal level, you feel more prepared for what is to come. However, as stated earlier, federal charges are severe and are often accompanied by penalties of the same caliber. Paired with the skill and experience of federal prosecutors, it is always best to consult an experienced attorney to discuss the circumstances of your particular case.

Contact us for a consultation if you have been charged, and we can discuss your options, and defenses today.