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What Happens in a Felony Case

Any offense punishable by death or imprisonment for more than one year is called a felony. Felonies are the most serious crimes. The prosecutors and the courts handle felony cases differently from misdemeanor cases (cases that have shorter possible sentences).

This part of the handbook is intended to explain the way a felony case moves through the court system. Each step is explained in the sections below. Witnesses are not needed at every step in the process. Most witnesses are asked to come to court only for a preliminary hearing, a grand jury hearing, a witness conference, or a trial.

Not every step is taken in every case. In fact, many cases end before they reach trial. Even so, you may wish to know all the steps that the case in which you are involved might go through.

  1. Initiating charges by complaints

    Some felony cases begin when the United States Attorney (or usually an Assistant United States Attorney), working with a law enforcement officer, files a criminal complaint before a United States Magistrate. This complaint is a statement, under oath, of facts sufficient to support probable cause to believe that an offense against the laws of the United States has been committed by a defendant. If the Magistrate accepts the complaint, a summons or arrest warrant will be issued for the defendant. In some cases, the defendant may have been arrested without a warrant, in which case the defendant is presented to the Magistrate at the time the complaint is filed.

    Victims and witnesses of federal offenses may be interviewed by a law enforcement officer before the filing of a complaint. In those situations, the law enforcement officer will report the statements of the victim or witness to the Assistant United States Attorney assigned to the case. Sometimes the Assistant United States Attorney may wish to interview the witness in person.

  2. The initial appearance

    This is a defendant's first hearing after arrest. It takes place before a United States Magistrate, usually the same day the defendant is arrested. Witnesses are not needed for testimony at this hearing. The hearing has three purposes. First, the defendant is told his or her rights and the charges are explained. Second, the defendant is assisted in making arrangements for legal representation, by appointment of an attorney by the court, if necessary. Third, the court determines if the defendant can be safely released on bail.

    Many defendants charged with a felony are released at the end of this hearing - either they have posted money to guarantee their return for trial and other hearings, or they have been released on conditions which include their promise to return for future hearings or the trial. Those conditions may include the requirement that they not personally contact witnesses in the case. In some cases, the defendant will be detained without bail.

  3. Preliminary hearing

    The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether there is evidence to find probable cause to believe that the defendant has committed the offense charged. The burden is on the United States Attorney to produce sufficient evidence to support this finding. The United States Attorney does not have to prove at this hearing that the defendant is guilty, but must present evidence to show that there is good reason to proceed with the charges against the defendant. The date for this hearing will be set at the initial appearance. Usually the law enforcement officer alone can give sufficient evidence that there is probable cause that the defendant has committed the offense. Occasionally, witnesses may be subpoenaed to testify. If you receive such a subpoena, you should get in touch with the Assistant United States Attorney who is handling the case as soon as possible.

  4. Grand jury hearings

    A grand jury is a group of twenty-three (23) citizens from the same judicial district who meet to examine the evidence against people who may be charged with a crime. The work of the grand jury is not made available to the public or, in most cases, to the defendant. Only an Assistant United States Attorney and a stenographer meet with the grand jurors - plus those witnesses who are subpoenaed to give evidence.

    Although a grand jury proceeding is not a trial, it is a serious matter. Witnesses are put under oath. Their testimony is recorded and may later be used during the trial. It is important to review carefully what you remember about the crime before you testify before the grand jury. You must tell the truth. Before testifying before the grand jury, you will probably meet with the case agent or the Assistant United States Attorney. This will help you get ready for your grand jury appearance.

    After hearing the evidence presented by the Assistant United States Attorney, the grand jury will decide whether the case should be prosecuted. Grand jury charges against a defendant are called indictments. If the grand jury finds that the case should not be prosecuted, they will return a no true bill, which means that no indictment will be issued.

    Not every witness in a serious crime is called to testify by the grand jury. Sometimes the grand jury will issue indictments on the basis of an officer's testimony alone. If you are called to testify, the Assistant United States Attorney should be able to give you an approximate time when your testimony will be heard. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to schedule testimony to the minute. Your appearance may involve some waiting to be called before the grand jury itself, so we recommend that you bring some reading material along with you.

    All witnesses who testify before the grand jury, except federal employees, are entitled to the same witness fee and expenses which are available for testifying in court at trial.

  5. Arraignment on the indictment

    In this hearing, a Magistrate Judge formally informs the defendant of the charges, which are contained in the indictment, and his or her bail conditions are reviewed. Witnesses are usually not needed at this hearing. Usually at this hearing the date is set for the case to be heard at trial.

  6. Hearings on motions

    Before the trial, the court may hear motions made by the defendant or the United States. These may include motions to suppress evidence, to compel discovery, or to resolve other legal questions. In most cases, witnesses are not needed at the motions hearing. If a witness is needed at this hearing, (s)he will receive a notice from the United States Attorney's Office.

  7. The witness conference

    At some time before the trial date, the Assistant United States Attorney in charge of the case may contact you by letter or phone asking you to appear at a witness conference to prepare you for trial. The purpose of this witness conference is to review the evidence you will be testifying about with the Assistant United States Attorney who will be trying the case. You are entitled to a witness fee for attending this conference.

  8. Trial

    In many felony cases, the only contact witnesses have with the prosecutors comes at the witness conference and at the trial. Normally, when the trial date has been set, you will be notified by a subpoena - a formal written order from the court to appear. You should be aware that a subpoena is an order of the court, and you may face serious penalties for failing to appear as directed on that subpoena. Check your subpoena for the exact time at which you should appear. If for any reason you are unable to appear as the subpoena directs, you should immediately notify the Assistant United States Attorney who is working on the case.

    Felony trials don't always go on as scheduled. Sometimes the defendant may plead guilty at the last minute, and the trial is therefore canceled. At other times, the defendant asks for and is granted a continuance. Sometimes the trial has to be postponed a day or more because earlier cases being heard by the court have taken longer than expected. When possible, the Assistant United States Attorney handing the case or the Victim/Witness Coordinator will discuss with you any proposed scheduling change. Also, the United States Attorney's Office will do everything it can to notify you of any postponement in advance of your appearance at court.

    Although all of the witnesses for trial appear early in the day, most must wait for some period of time to be called to the courtroom to give their testimony. For this reason, it is a good idea to bring some reading material or handwork to occupy your waiting time. If you are waiting in a courtroom, you should remember that it may be against the rules to read in court.

    A felony trial follows the same pattern as the trial of any other criminal case before the court. The prosecution and the defense have an opportunity to make an opening statement, then the Assistant United States Attorney will present the case for the United States. Each witness that is called for the United States may be cross-examined by the defendant or the defendant's counsel. When the prosecution has rested its case, the defense then has an opportunity to present its side of the case. The United States may then cross-examine the defendant's witnesses. When both sides have rested, the prosecution and the defense have an opportunity to argue the merits of the case to the judge or, in a case which is being heard by a jury, to the jury, in what is called a closing argument. The judge or the jury will then make findings and deliver a verdict of guilty or not guilty of the offense charged.

    After you have testified in court, you should not tell other witnesses what was said during the testimony until after the case is over. Thus, you should not ask other witnesses about their testimony, and you should not volunteer information about your own.

  9. Sentencing

    In a criminal case, if the defendant is convicted, the judge will set a date for sentencing. The time between conviction and sentencing is most often used in the preparation of a pre-sentence investigation report. This report is prepared by the United States Probation Office. At the time of sentencing, the judge will consider both favorable and unfavorable facts about the defendant before determining the appropriate sentence to impose.

    The function of imposing sentence is exclusively that of the judge. In some cases, (s)he has a wide range of alternatives to consider and may place the defendant on probation (in which the defendant is released in the community under supervision of the court for a period of years), or place the defendant in jail for a specific period of time, or impose a fine, or formulate a sentence involving a combination of these sanctions.

    The court will also consider requiring the defendant to make restitution to victims who have suffered physical or financial damage as a result of the crime. If you are a victim, you should cooperate fully with the United States Attorney's Office and the United States Probation Office on preparing a Victim Impact Statement regarding the impact of the crime and the need for restitution. A Victim Impact Statement is a written description of your physical, psychological, emotional, and financial injuries that occurred as a direct result of the crime. A Victim Impact Statement is read by the judge who will be sentencing the defendant.

    Victims and witnesses may attend (except in juvenile prosecutions unless the defendant agrees or court permits) the sentencing proceedings and may also have the opportunity to address the court at this time. The Assistant United States Attorney will tell you if such an opportunity exists for you and will talk to you about such a presentation.

Updated July 24, 2015