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How Federal Criminal Cases Work

This page is meant to be a resource for people caught up in the federal criminal justice system. It contains answers to general questions about how federal criminal cases work. To use the language of lawyers, it contains links to information about federal criminal procedure.

This page only deals with things that happen from when a person is charged with a crime in federal court until they're convicted. If you'd like information about what happens before that – please see our page on federal criminal investigations. If you'd like information about what happens after a conviction, please see our case on federal criminal appeals.

One big question we hear often from our clients is when they will get a chance to tell their side of what happened. Please see our answer to that question.

There are three steps to a federal criminal case. This page contains an overview, and there are links that have more information about specific parts of a case. And we're continually trying to make this page better.


During this part of the case, a person is charged, whether they'll be in jail or released (and, if released, on what conditions), the Assistant United States Attorney will have to provide evidence about the case, and pretrial motions about whether the case should be dismissed or some evidence should be thrown out will be filed.

Trial or Plea

During this stage, one of three things will happen. In the majority of federal criminal cases, a person will plead guilty.  If a person accused of a federal crime pleads guilty, the case goes to sentencing .  If the person decides not to take a plea, the case goes to trial. If the jury says the person was not guilty, then the case is over and the the person goes on with their life. If the jury says the person was guilty, though, the case then goes to sentencing.  And, finally, in some rare cases a defense lawyer can talk a prosecutor into dismissing the case.

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