Federal Crimes Criminal Process

Facing federal prosecution is different from a criminal case prosecuted by state or county officials. Federal law is interrelated and complex, and the process is different starting with how crimes are investigated. Many federal crimes involve cooperation between countless federal agencies, and U.S. Attorneys have resources that far outweigh what county prosecutors might be able to bring to the table.

If you are facing federal charges, it could benefit you from understanding the process you are about to go through. You have important rights available to you, but only if you know when and how to use them. Below, we review the steps in a federal case from investigation through trial.

A board-certified federal criminal defense attorney could assist with your case every step of the way. This is true whether you have been arrested under suspicion of federal crimes or if you believe an arrest may be imminent. To discuss your options with a dedicated Houston federal criminal defense attorney, speak with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. today.


Criminal prosecutions do not appear out of thin air. In most cases, these prosecutions begin based on the work of federal law enforcement or regulatory agencies. When these agencies believe a federal crime has occurred, they collect information and provide it to the United States Attorney for their jurisdiction. Houston falls under the purview of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

There are hundreds of federal agencies and offices within those agencies that have investigative power. These agencies often work together with each other in some cases. Federal law enforcement also typically plays a role in the investigation process. The agency that initiates any given offense depends on its nature. For example, Homeland Security might be more likely to take up an investigation into an immigration offense, while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is more likely to be the first to investigate claims of gun smuggling.

Some of the agencies that commonly investigate federal crimes include:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Department of Homeland Security / Homeland Security Investigation
  • United States Secret Service (USSS)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)

There is no guarantee you will ever know if you are under federal investigation. Each case is different, with some targets only learning that they are under investigation when the arrest comes. In other cases, the agencies will make it clear an investigation is underway. Often, they could seek cooperation from the target of the investigation in turning over documents or answering questions. While these investigators might seem friendly, their ultimate goal is to determine if you should face criminal charges. You do not have to wait until you are arrested to meet with a lawyer, as legal counsel could help you navigate dealing with these investigators early on in the process.

Charging through Grand Juries

After federal investigators do the work of compiling the evidence, it is the U.S. Attorney's Office that makes the ultimate decision to charge a defendant. When the prosecution determines they have enough to pursue a criminal case, they must convene a grand jury and notify the defendant of the charges.

Grand juries are not common in state courts but are mandatory for felony crimes at the federal level. A grand jury involves between 16 and 23 individuals, and the proceedings are not open to the public. The prosecution will present their evidence to the grand jury, who must make the determination of whether or not there is enough to move forward. At least 12 grand jurors must agree the prosecution has enough to proceed for charges to become official.

A grand jury is not a trial. Not only does the defendant not have to be present, but they also have no right to put on any defense, call witnesses, or cross-examine witnesses of the case. This process only determines if the facts offered by the federal government are strong enough to warrant a criminal charge. If the grand jury determines that even in the light most favorable to the prosecution the charges are unwarranted, the case may not continue.


Shortly after the grand jury votes to indict, a defendant will be called into court to enter a plea in their case. This hearing often occurs the same day a person faces arrest. At the arraignment, the court will inform the defendant of the charges against them and allow them to plead guilty or not guilty.

A defendant is entitled to an attorney at every stage of a criminal case, including arraignment. At this hearing, the attorney for the defendant could ask the court to release the defendant from jail on bail pending trial. As long as the defendant pays a bond and meets certain conditions, they could remain free until the date of their trial.

The arraignment is the first of many court appearances in a criminal case. In Houston, the arraignment – along with all hearings in a criminal case – occurs at the federal courthouse. The courthouse is located at:

United States District Courthouse for the Southern District of Texas
515 Rusk Street
Houston, Texas 77002

The Preliminary Hearing

Within two weeks of arraignment, a defendant that has pled not guilty in a federal case is entitled to a preliminary hearing. The preliminary hearing must occur within 14 days after the defendant's initial appearance. In some cases, a preliminary hearing is a formality that could be waived by the defendant.

These hearings require the prosecution to establish in court that enough evidence exists to prosecute the defendant. This is a lower bar than proving their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The preliminary hearing is similar to a miniature trial. The prosecutor will put on evidence and call witnesses in an effort to establish the strength of their case. Like at trial, the defense can cross-examine the government's witnesses to cast doubt on their case. However, the defense may not object to any of the evidence. In fact, the prosecution can rely on evidence that may not be admissible at trial.

The burden at a preliminary hearing is probable cause, which is a low standard. If the court determines there is at least probable cause to pursue a prosecution, the case may move forward. While it is rare for a preliminary hearing to result in the dismissal of a case, these hearings could give the defendant important insight into the strength of the case against them.

The Discovery Process

The early phase of a criminal trial is known as discovery. This process allows both sides to review the evidence the other intends to rely on at trial. Any piece of evidence or any witness the government plans on calling at trial must be turned over to the defense. A defendant has the right to review the evidence against them, and the failure to turn over this information could result in the court excluding its use at trial or even dismissing the case entirely.

The discovery process is crucial, as it gives both sides an understanding of where the case stands. While identifying all available evidence is valuable for a defendant, establishing their own evidence could also have its benefits. It is often during discovery that a defense attorney provides the prosecution with important evidence of their client's innocence. If the prosecutor determines at the close of discovery that they do not have enough to obtain a conviction, it could result in a voluntary dismissal of the case.

Plea Bargaining

At any point during the course of a criminal trial, the prosecution could make an offer to settle the case with a plea bargain. These offers often occur early on, but negotiation frequently picks up after discovery is complete.

A plea offer typically involves the defendant agreeing to enter a plea of guilty in exchange for a sentencing recommendation from the prosecutor. If the parties agree, the defendant must admit to their actual guilt during a sentencing hearing, and the court must accept the guilty plea. While the court typically agrees, the judge is under no obligation to accept a sentencing recommendation.

Likewise, the prosecution has no duty to offer a plea bargain in any specific case. That said, most federal charges are ultimately resolved through a negotiated plea. The choice to take a plea is a serious one, as it requires the defendant to waive their rights – including their right to a trial.

Pre-Trial Litigation

If settlement appears unlikely, the close of discovery will generally lead to preparation for trial. For most criminal cases, there is still much work to do before a case is ready to go before a jury. This often comes in the form of pre-trial motions filed by both the prosecution and the defense.

These motions serve a number of purposes. They can seek to exclude certain evidence from trial or to dismiss the case entirely. They can ask for the case to be transferred to another venue or even request the judge to recuse themselves due to perceived bias. These motions can shape the way the trial proceeds – and even determine if a trial happens at all.

It is ultimately the decision of the judge to rule on each of these motions. In some cases, the judge will simply grant or deny the request. In others, the court might request both parties make arguments in court for and against the motion. It is not uncommon for judges to take days or even weeks to make a decision on complex pre-trial motions.


Once all pre-trial motions have been addressed, it is time to move forward with the trial. The length of the trial can vary dramatically depending on the nature of the case. A short trial, especially for a misdemeanor offense, might only last a day. Cases with multiple defendants or complex fact patterns could last a month. While no two trials are alike, they each follow a typical pattern:

  • Jury Selection. For jury trials, both sides must select a jury from a panel of potential jurors. Each side typically selects a certain number to strike from the pool and can make the case for striking more for cause.
  • Opening Statements. Once the jury is seated, both sides make opening statements starting with the prosecution. This is a preview of the evidence the state will use. The defense then makes their opening statement outlining the defense.
  • The Government's Case. The prosecution then puts on their case. This could include fact witnesses, expert testimony, and physical evidence.
  • The Defendant's Case. The defense puts on their case next. They can call witnesses as well, including the defendant. The defendant cannot be compelled to testify, however.
  • Closing Arguments. In the end, both sides will wrap up their case by highlighting the evidence they believe is favorable. They will ask the jury to convict or acquit, respectively.
  • Deliberation and Verdict. In the end, the judge will instruct the jury on the manner of reaching a decision and the rules they must follow. The judge will then send the jury to deliberate. This process could take hours or days. Once they reach a decision, the jury will return to inform the judge. The judge will then announce the verdict to the court.


If convicted, a defendant has the right to appeal the decision. These appeals can take years but can be successful in overturning a conviction in some cases. Like with a trial, the defendant has the right to an attorney throughout the appellate process as well.

Discuss Your Options with a Houston Federal Defense Attorney

If you are facing federal charges in Houston or suspect you are under investigation, it is important to seek legal counsel immediately. The steps you take in the early phases of a case could directly impact its outcome.

Attorney Doug Murphy is an experienced criminal defense attorney that never backs down when facing the federal government. To learn how you could put his experience to use in your case, schedule a free consultation with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.

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