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Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions:

Media Frequently Asked Questions

Federal Court System Explained

Justice 101


Do you issue press releases on every case?

No. We generally issue press releases only in the most significant cases or in cases which might be of particular public interest. The U.S. Attorney's Office prosecutes and defends hundreds of other cases.

Why does the U.S. Attorney's Office frequently say "No Comment"?

In most instances, the U.S. Attorney's Office declines to comment on pending cases or investigations. This is so for two reasons. First, any matters occurring before the grand jury are secret as a matter of law, and we are prohibited from discussing them. Second, Justice Department guidelines, as well as considerations of fairness to defendants require that we not make comments which could prejudice a defendant's right to a fair trial. Rules of professional conduct, rules of court, and potential compromise of the investigation are reasons we cannot comment.

Can the U.S. Attorney’s Office provide mug shots?

In most cases, Department of Justice policy prohibits the release of mug shots by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal law enforcement agencies.  Mug shots can only be released when there is a law enforcement purpose for doing so like in a fugitive situation.

What information can the U.S. Attorney's Office provide?

We can and do provide information which is in the public record, either through documents which have been publicly filed with the court or statements made in open court. We can also provide status information about a case such as the next scheduled appearance.

What are other sources of information about the federal courts?

The most direct source is to go to the Clerk's office in the courthouse where the case was filed and ask to see the pleadings in the case in which you are interested. The Clerk of Court maintains a web site at

What kind of cases does the U.S. Attorney's Office handle?

This office prosecutes federal criminal cases in the Eastern District of North Carolina. The Eastern District stretches from the North Carolina/ Virginia border to the North Carolina/South Carolina border to the north and south.  Granville, Wake, Harnett, Cumberland, and Robeson Counties make up the western border all the way to the coast makes up the Eastern District.  In addition, the U.S. Attorney's Office defends the United States in civil suits brought against it, and brings civil cases to recover money for taxpayers, preserve the environment, and ensure citizen's civil rights.

What is the difference between the U.S. Attorney's Office and the District Attorney's (D.A.'s) Office?

The U.S. Attorney's Office represents the United States in federal cases, including all federal criminal cases. These cases are heard in any of the five federal courthouses in the District: in Raleigh, Elizabeth City, Greenville, Wilmington, and New Bern. The D.A.'s Office, by contrast, prosecutes state crimes, not federal crimes.

What are federal crimes?

Federal crimes are defined by statutes enacted by the U.S. Congress. There are many federal crimes. Some federal crimes involve narcotics, bank robbery, fraudulent activity that affects interstate commerce, wire fraud, mail fraud or tax fraud, any crime in which the United States is defrauded, guns, environmental crimes, and civil rights violations. Some crimes may violate both state and federal laws, such as bank robbery. In these cases, the U.S. Attorney's Office works closely with state and local law enforcement officials to determine whether a case will be brought in federal or state court.

Does the U.S. Attorney's Office investigate crimes?

Investigations are generally conducted by federal law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, Postal Inspection Service, Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and others. We also frequently take cases from state and local agencies. The U.S. Attorney's Office works with those agencies to provide direction and legal counsel in federal criminal investigations.

What is a federal grand jury?

Federal prosecutors charge most cases by presenting evidence to a federal grand jury which is made up of 23 jurors. The grand juries serve two functions: they investigate cases through reviewing documents and hearing witness testimony, and they return indictments when they find probable cause to believe that a defendant has committed the crime charged. By law, grand juries operate in secret.

Why are the grand jury's proceedings secret?

The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure require that grand jurors and federal prosecutors keep grand jury proceedings, including the existence of a federal criminal investigation, completely secret unless and until the grand jury returns an indictment against one or more defendants. Witnesses, other than law enforcement officials, called to testify before the grand jury are not generally under the same secrecy requirements. However, under most circumstances it is illegal for prosecutors to reveal the details of grand jury deliberations. This is one of the reasons that the U.S. Attorney's Office generally declines to comment on cases under investigation.

What are the steps in a criminal prosecution?

Charges are filed: A defendant is charged either by complaint, indictment or information. A complaint is an initial charging document signed by the Magistrate Judge that describes the charges against a defendant. A person can be arrested and charged by complaint before a grand jury has found probable cause to return an indictment, but a person charged by complaint then has the right to be indicted by a grand jury. An indictment is similar to a complaint in that it describes the charges against a defendant, but it is returned by the grand jury. Most felony cases are charged by indictment. An information, as opposed to an indictment or complaint, is the charging document where a defendant is charged with a misdemeanor (although some defendants give up their right to be indicted by a grand jury and are charged by information instead). A misdemeanor information may be filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office without approval by the court or a grand jury.

Initial Appearance and Detention: The defendant's initial appearance in federal court is before a Magistrate Judge. The defendant is told what charges he or she faces and the maximum penalties. The Court makes an initial determination whether the defendant will be held without bond or released on certain conditions. Frequently there is another hearing later about whether a defendant will be confined or released pending trial. This is called a detention hearing.

Arraignment: After the grand jury indicts a defendant, the defendant is informed by the Magistrate Judge of the charges and penalties during the hearing known as an arraignment. The defendant enters a plea of not guilty at this point.

Trials and pleas: If the charge is a felony, following arraignment the defendant will appear before a United States District Judge. Most proceedings, including motions, trial or sentencing, take place before the District Judge.

Trial or Plea: A defendant will generally either plead guilty to charges or proceed to trial before a District Judge. In a trial, the United States must prove the charges to a jury of 12 citizens beyond a reasonable doubt. The law requires that a criminal defendant be tried within 70 days of indictment, though that time is sometimes extended because of motions filed by the defense or the government.

Sentencing: After a guilty plea or guilty verdict, a defendant is sentenced by the United States District Judge. The range of sentence is dictated by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of factors including the defendant's criminal history and the nature of the conduct. The U.S. Probation Office prepares a presentence report to help the Court and parties arrive at the appropriate sentence. The Court may also order the defendant to pay restitution and/or a fine.

Appeal: A defendant may appeal his or her conviction or sentence under certain circumstances. Appeals in federal cases are heard by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers a number of states, but has its headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. The U.S. Attorney's Office also represents the United States in appeals before the Fourth Circuit.

Updated July 26, 2018