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Federal Court — In General

A federal defendant is brought into the federal system by one of two ways: He is arrested and brought before a federal magistrate judge based upon a criminal complaint or he is indicted by a grand jury and brought before a federal magistrate judge for his first appearance, detention hearing and arraignment. If a federal defendant is arrested on a criminal complaint, he is entitled to a preliminary hearing to establish if the government has probable cause to go forward with the charges. A preliminary hearing then is a probable cause hearing, in that a federal judge must make sure the government had probable cause to arrest a defendant for the charges in which the federal defendant is brought to court to face.

The standard federal criminal case proceeds as follows: a first appearance followed by a detention hearing within three days, an arraignment and then approximately one month later a status conference followed by a scheduled trial term. However, there often is more than one status conference for complex or multi-defendant cases. A trial term typically lasts one month. This means that a criminal case may be set at any time within that one-month period. A timeline for both scenarios is set forth below:

Indictment — First Appearance — Detention Hearing — Arraignment — Status Conference(s) — Trial Term


Arrest — Probable Cause Hearing — Detention Hearing — Arraignment — Status Conference(s) — Trial Term

Federal Judges

There are two types of federal judges at the District Court level: federal magistrate judges and federal District Court judges. Federal magistrate judges routinely handle first appearances, detention hearings, arraignments, guilty plea hearings and motion hearings, while federal District Court judges typically handle felony jury trials and sentencing hearings.

Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (PSI)

If a federal defendant is found guilty at trial or pleads guilty, a pre-sentence investigation report (PSI) is ordered by the court. This procedure lasts approximately 75 days and is completed by the United States Probation Office. Early in this time period, typically within the first two weeks, a probation officer will interview a federal defendant and his family and/or friends. This aids the probation officer in compiling a report containing a sentencing analysis and a personal history compilation of the federal defendant. The District Court judge relies on this document to aid in determining punishment at sentencing. The defense attorney and the prosecutor are allowed to object to anything contained within the PSI. It is the duty of the probation officer to resolve any objections. Any unresolved objections are ruled upon at a federal defendant’s sentencing hearing.


The goal of sentencing is to produce a reasonable but not greater than necessary sentence. To that end, there are primarily four sentencing factors driving a federal criminal defendant’s ultimate sentence:

  1. The advisory federal sentencing guidelines
  2. A government-sponsored 5K substantial assistance motion (if one is filed)
  3. Congressionally mandated statutory mandatory minimum and statutory maximum sentences
  4. Title 18 U.S.C. Section 3553(a) factors