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What to Expect Your First Day in Federal Court

The process of being arrested and charged with a crime can vary slightly from state to state, depending on the type of crime, any recent changes in the law, and plea negotiations between the prosecutor and the federal criminal defense attorney. Many people do not know what to expect on their first day in Federal Court, especially if it is their first time dealing with the criminal justice system. It’s important to have an idea of how proceedings will go so that you can be prepared, and present yourself accordingly. Below is a general overview of what clients can expect to go through when they appear for their first day in Federal Court.

Indictment Process and Arrest

In the majority of federal criminal cases, there is a formal document that lays out the charges. This is called an indictment, and in most cases, this indictment is what leads to an arrest warrant for the suspect. If there is an opportunity for the individual charged to turn themselves into a federal agent, this is usually a good thing. When individuals do not surrender themselves, federal agents come to the suspect’s house unannounced, which can be disruptive and traumatic for the individual, their family, and their neighbors. Once the suspected individual is in the agents’ custody, they will be taken to the United States Marshal’s Office for fingerprints and photographs, also known as booking.

The Bail Process

Following the booking process, the suspected individual will be interviewed by a pretrial officer to determine whether or not to set bail, and what the conditions of bail would be. The Bail Reform Act of 1984 states that courts are allowed to release individuals from custody once they’ve posted bail, and that those individuals must adhere to the conditions of the bail, or face additional charges. Most of the time, non-violent criminal cases mean that a defendant may be released on bail. In this case, the individual has to post bail to the Magistrate Judge, often through a bail bondsman. In other cases, individuals can post a cash deposit or offer real estate in order to secure the bond.

In the case of more serious crimes, the prosecution may request that no bail be set at all. This is referred to as a request for “detention.” Under this request, an additional hearing, known as a “detention hearing” is required to assess whether or not the charged individual is at risk of fleeing, or of additional, imminent danger to the community. It is up to the prosecution to convince the Magistrate Judge that the individual should not be given bail. In most cases, the federal criminal defense attorney won’t have much time to prepare for this type of hearing, however, several days’ extensions are granted in some cases.

The Arraignment

Once charges have officially been brought against a defendant, they must formally respond to this indictment in person, which is referred to as an arraignment. This process takes place in front of a Magistrate Judge. The Magistrate Judge will oversee the first few court appearances in these types of cases before the case is turned over to a District Judge. In most cases, only “not guilty” pleas are entered before the Magistrate Judge. Other pleas (such as a guilty plea) must be entered in front of a District Judge at a separate hearing, on a different day.

After the bail is set, and after the arraignment process, the defendant is usually ushered back to the United States Marshal’s office. At this point, the office will be cross-checking to determine whether or not there are any additional pending cases involving the defendant. If there are no other charges or pending cases involving the defendant, they are released for one last meeting with another pretrial officer to arrange home visits according to the conditions of the bail. If surrendering a passport is part of the condition of bail, the defendant would do that at this meeting.

The process of federal indictment, arrest, and arraignment can be a fast-paced and stressful process. It’s important to have a seasoned federal criminal defense attorney in these situations to help guide the process and to answer any lingering questions about the first few days in the federal court system.

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