Frequently Asked Questions
(These questions and answers do not constitute legal advice. They simply represent short, general answers to basic inquiries.)
I've been indicted in federal court. What's going to happen to me?
Generally, shortly after the government files an indictment, authorities will try to execute an arrest warrant for you. Once you are arrested, you will have an initial appearance in court (usually before a U.S. magistrate judge). You can request court-appointed counsel (like a public defender) at this time or you can seek to retain an attorney.
The court will then set a date for an arraignment, an initial pretrial conference, and possibly a detention hearing. You'll need an attorney for these proceedings, which usually occur just a few days after your initial appearance.
Once you're arraigned (the court will inform you of your rights and the charges against you, and most people enter a not-guilty plea), you'll find out about bond; either the court will order you detained in custody or release you on bond.
Then you need to meet with your attorney and start discussing your case. Essentially, your options will generally boil down to going to trial or pleading guilty. (There are issues that can lead to dismissal of a case, such as an illegal search.)
If a jury acquits you at trial, excellent. If not (if they convict you) or if you plead guilty, you will undergo a presentence interview with a probation officer and then face sentencing. After the court sentences you, it will enter a judgment and you may want to consider an appeal.
I've heard federal sentences get pretty long.
The federal system uses a set of advisory sentencing guidelines. You can learn more about these guidelines, and federal sentencing as a whole, at the U.S. Sentencing Commission's website. Federal sentences are often much longer than state sentences for similar conduct. The federal system does not use parole, but you can earn good-time credit.
How long does all this take?
As an average, federal criminal cases take about 7 months to reach a resolution. This statistic, however, represents only an average. Some cases, of course, take much longer, and some cases will move more quickly. The complexity of a case, the number of defendants named, and the issues that arise for pretrial motions can all affect the pace of a case.
What are my rights in federal court?
You enjoy a number of constitutional and statutory rights, including the right to an attorney. You have trial rights (like the right to be convicted only if the government can prove its case against you beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury), and you have appellate rights. You have a right to remain silent; you don't have to make statements. If you have a lawyer, talk to them before you talk to anyone else.