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The Federal Criminal Court Process

The litigation process in the United States is an adversarial system because it relies on the litigants on each side to present their dispute before a neutral fact-finder. In federal criminal court the litigants are the defendant and the government and the neutral fact-finder is the jury, or in some instances the district court judge. The government will provide a lawyer to a criminal defendant who cannot afford one on his or her own. Typically the Federal Public Defender’s Office fills this role, but in instances of a conflict a private lawyer will be appointed to a federal criminal defendant at no charge pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act. These lawyers are often referred to as Criminal Justice Act, or CJA, lawyers.

A federal defendant is brought into the federal system by one of two ways: Either 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, an arraignment and then approximately one month later a status conference followed by a scheduled trial term. However, there are often more than one status conferences 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 time line 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