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Criminal Justice Process

Navigating the Federal Criminal Justice Process

The federal criminal justice system can seem confusing, particularly if someone becomes involved because they have been affected by crime through no actions of their own. The steps in the federal criminal justice process described below are not exhaustive. Some cases are simple and may not involve every step. Others may be more complex and may involve most or all of the steps in the process. To learn more about the federal criminal process, click each step below.

  1. Investigation of Environmental Crimes
  2. Charging of Environmental Crimes
  3. Initial Hearing/Arraignment of Defendant
  4. Plea Agreements
  5. Discovery before Trial
  6. Pre-trial Motions
  7. Trial of an Environmental Crime Case
  8. Post-trial Motions
  9. Sentencing of Defendant after Conviction
  10. Appeal

Investigation of Environmental Crimes

In the federal Government, agencies employ criminal investigative agents who collect and provide information to the Department of Justice. Some of the agencies that investigate environmental crimes include:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)
  • Department of Labor (DOL)
  • National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA)
  • U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Department of Interior (DOI)

The investigators at these agencies investigate the potential crime and obtain evidence, and help prosecutors understand the details of the case. Part of the investigation may involve a search of a person’s home, their business, car, or other property. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution generally requires that law enforcement officers obtain a search warrant from a court supported by probable cause before they conduct such a search. Other methods that often are used in an investigation include interviews of witnesses, visual observations, document requests, and taking samples.

Charging of Environmental Crimes

After prosecutors study the information from investigators and the information they gather from talking with the individuals involved, they decide whether to present the case to a grand jury. A grand jury is an impartial group of citizens that hears witness testimony and reviews other evidence. Ultimately, the grand jury deliberates and votes in secret on whether they believe there is enough evidence to charge the person with a crime. When that happens, the grand jury issues an indictment. On the other hand, the grand jury may decide not to charge an individual if they think there is not sufficient evidence. 

An indictment is formal notice to a defendant that they have been charged with a crime. It contains the basic information that informs the person of the nature of the charge(s) against them.

Someone who is charged with a crime can either hire an attorney or may be represented by a public defender if they cannot afford a private attorney. Defendants also have the right to represent themselves.

Initial Hearing/Arraignment of Defendant

Either the same day or after a defendant is indicted and arrested, they are brought before a magistrate judge for an initial hearing. At that time, the defendant learns more about their rights and the charges, arrangements are made for legal representation, and the judge decides if the defendant will be held in jail or released on bond until the trial.

In many cases, the law allows defendants to be released from prison before trial if they meet the requirements for bond. Before the judge makes the decision on whether to grant bond, there must be a hearing regarding such factors as how long the defendant has lived in the area, if they have family nearby, prior criminal record, and any threats to victims or witnesses in the case. The judge also considers the defendant’s potential danger to the community and the risk that they will flee.

The defendant also will be asked to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges.

Plea Agreements

The Government may offer the defendant a plea agreement to avoid trial and perhaps avoid a longer sentence. A plea bargain can happen before or after the defendant is indicted.

A defendant may plead guilty only if they actually committed the crime and admit to doing so in open court before the judge. Through a guilty plea, a defendant admits guilt and consents to be sentenced by the judge presiding over the case without a trial. Sometimes the Government will agree, as part of a plea agreement, not to recommend a particular sentence, but it is up to the judge to determine how the defendant will be punished.

If a defendant pleads guilty, there is no trial, and the next step is to prepare for a sentencing hearing.

Discovery before Trial

Before a prosecutor begins a trial, there is much work to be done. The prosecutor has to become familiar with the facts of the crime, talk to the witnesses, study the evidence, anticipate problems that could arise during trial, and develop a trial strategy. Meanwhile, the defense attorney prepares in much the same way.

One of the first steps in preparing for trial is to talk to witnesses who could be called to testify in court. A witness is a person who saw or heard the crime take place or may have other important information about the crime or the defendant. Victims of environmental crimes may be witnesses in a case. 

To avoid surprises at trial and to determine which of the witnesses to call to testify, the prosecutor talks to each witness to find out what they may say during trial. These conversations will help the prosecutor decide who to call as a witness in court.

Prosecutors must provide the defense with copies of materials and evidence that the prosecution intends to use at trial. This process is called discovery, and continues from the time the case begins through the time of trial. Further, the prosecutor is required to provide the defense with evidence that may hurt the government’s case, called exculpatory evidence. This evidence could show the defendant’s innocence. If the prosecution does not provide it to the defense, a new trial may be required.

Pre-trial Motions

One of the last steps a prosecutor takes before trial is to file motions or to respond to motions filed by the defense. A pre-trial motion is an application to the court made by the prosecutor or defense attorney, requesting that the court make a decision on a certain issue before the trial begins. The motion can affect the trial, courtroom, defendants, evidence, or testimony. The judge decides the outcome of motions.

Trial of an Environmental Crime Case

After many weeks or months of preparation, the prosecutor and defense are ready for trial. The trial is a structured process where the facts of a case are presented to a jury, and the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty of the charge(s). Ordinarily, a trial is held before a jury in a courtroom, but there are circumstances in which the case will be tried before the judge alone, which is known as a bench trial. During trial, the prosecutor uses witnesses and evidence to prove to the jury (or judge in a bench trial) that the defendant committed the crime(s). The defendant, represented by an attorney, may also tell their side using witnesses and evidence.

In a trial, the judge decides what evidence can be shown to the jury. A judge is not there to help one side or the other, but to make sure the entire process is consistent with the rules and the law.

Jury Selection

At trial, one of the first things a prosecutor and defense attorney must do is to select the jury. Jurors are selected to listen to the facts of the case and to determine if the defendant committed the crime. Twelve jurors are selected randomly from the jury pool, which is a list of potential jurors compiled from voter registration records of people living in the federal district.

When selecting the jury, the prosecutor and defense attorney may not discriminate against any group of people. For example, the judge will not allow them to select only men or only women. Both lawyers are allowed to ask questions about their potential biases and may ask that jurors be excused from service. 

Opening Statements

Opening statements allow the prosecutor and the defense attorney to briefly tell their account of the events. These statements usually are short like an outline and do not involve witnesses or evidence.

Presentment of Case

It is the government's responsibility to prove the defendant committed the crime as detailed in the indictment. There is no burden on the defendant to prove that they are innocent.

Witness Examination

After opening statements, the prosecutor begins direct examination of the government’s witnesses. During direct examination, the prosecutor can introduce evidence such as documents or something from the crime scene. Following the prosecutor’s examination of a witness, the defense attorney has an opportunity to cross examine or ask questions to the same witness.

After the Government is finished presenting its case, the defense has the opportunity to present witnesses and evidence to the jury. The defense also has the option of not having the defendant testify. The fact that a defendant did not testify may not be considered by the jury as proof that the defendant committed the crime. If the defense does not put on any evidence, the jury cannot assume that the defendant is guilty simply because they did not put on a defense. The decision to put on a defense is solely up to the defendant and the defense attorney.


During direct or cross examination, either attorney can object to a question or a piece of evidence to the judge. The judge decides the outcome of an objection, sometimes after allowing attorneys on both sides to comment before making a ruling. For example, an attorney may object to a question asked because it is beyond the knowledge of the witness that the attorney may be arguing with the witness rather than asking questions, or the witness’ answer may include information irrelevant to the case. 

One common objection is hearsay, which is a statement by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but learned about it through secondhand information such as another’s statement, a newspaper, or a document. 

Closing Arguments

After the defense presents evidence if it chooses, the defense rests, and the prosecutor and defense attorney present closing arguments. Closing arguments are the final opportunity for the prosecutor and the defense attorney to talk to the jury. These arguments allow both attorneys to summarize the testimony and evidence, and to ask the jury to return a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

Jury Instructions

The judge “charges the jury,” or informs them of the appropriate law and of what they must do to reach a verdict.

Jury Deliberations & Announcement of the Verdict

After being charged, the jury deliberates, the process of deciding whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. During this process, no one associated with the trial can contact the jury without the judge and lawyers. In federal criminal trials, the jury must reach a unanimous decision in order to convict the defendant.

After they reach an agreement on a verdict, the jury informs the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant in open court. Everyone is present in court for the reading of the verdict. If the defendant is found not guilty, they are usually free to go home.

Post-trial Motions

If the defendant is convicted, there are several motions that can be filed after the trial is over. Common post-trial motions include:

  • Motion for a New Trial – The court can vacate the judgment and allow for a new trial. This is rarely granted, but may be done “if the interest of justice so requires.”
  • Motion for Judgment of Acquittal – Court may set aside the jury’s verdict and allow the defendant to go free.

Sentencing of Defendant after Conviction

A few months after the defendant is found guilty (by pleading guilty or by trial), they return to court to be sentenced.

The judge receives guidance and assistance from several sources in order to sentence a defendant. The United States Sentencing Commission has produced a set of sentencing guidelines that recommend certain punishments for certain crimes while considering various factors. Further, the judge will look at a presentence investigation report and consider statements from the victims as well as the defendant and lawyers.

The judge may consider a variety of aggravating or mitigating factors. These include whether the defendant has committed the same crime before, whether the defendant has expressed regret for the crime, and the nature of the crime itself. At sentencing, the court can order imprisonment, supervised release/probation, restitution or community service.


After a defendant is found guilty, they can appeal to the Court of Appeals if the defendant believes they were wrongly convicted or the sentence was too harsh. An appeal is not another trial but an opportunity for the defendant to try to raise specific legal errors that might have occurred at trial. A common appeal is that a decision from the judge was incorrect — such as whether to allow certain evidence or to impose a certain sentence. Appeals are complicated and sometimes result in the case going back to the trial court. A conviction may be reversed, a sentence altered, or a new trial may be ordered altogether if the Court of Appeals decides that particular course of action.

Updated September 12, 2023