California Criminal Charges + Sentencing, Hearings & Statute of Limitations

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Were you charged recently with a federal crime in California? If so, you should learn as much as you can about the federal charges legal process. If the crime allegedly was committed in California, you will in all likelihood be prosecuted by the federal government in the appropriate district in California. Note that you also could face separate state charges for your alleged crime as well.

Whatever you have been charged with, the federal government must tell you within three days of your arrest of the nature of the charges. Usually, the defendant will be held in federal custody before the initial hearing occurs.

About the Preliminary Hearing

Your preliminary hearing on federal charges in California will happen within three days of arrest. However, your lawyer may request an extension so that he or she can look into the details of the case against you.

At your first hearing, the attorney has a chance to challenge any evidence against you. However, it is rare for a federal case to be dismissed at the initial hearing. The burden of proof is very low, and the feds probably have ample evidence against you, as they usually wait to arrest someone until a strong case has been built.

This hearing is nonetheless a good opportunity for your criminal defense lawyer to engage in discovery and see what the evidence is against you. This also is a chance to see the police reports on the case.

About the Bond Hearing

Next, you will have your bond hearing in federal court in California. At this hearing, you will ask the federal court to release you pending the outcome of the case.

However, your chances of getting bond depend on many factors:

  • Are you an illegal alien or non-citizen?
  • Do you have any outstanding warrants or pending criminal matters?
  • Do you have ties to the area?
  • What is your criminal history?
  • Are you considered dangerous?
  • Were there any victims of your alleged crime?

You are more likely to get out on bond if your lawyer can provide character witnesses for you in court. They need to be able to talk about your good character. They also should be able to speak to the fact that you will live in a safe area that is free of crime.

It is important to talk to your lawyer before you reveal any other criminal matters that are pending against you, as this could affect your sentence.

Federal Jurisdictions in California

There are four federal court districts in this state: Central, Eastern, Northern and Southern.

Sentences for Federal Crimes in California

No matter the nature of your federal charge, you want to have the best lawyer you can. Federal charges are almost always more serious than state charges, and a conviction can mean a long prison sentence. Your lawyer should be skilled in federal charges defense and be able to challenge suspect evidence.

Whatever your accused crime in the state, you want to have the best lawyer you can. They will have the ability to construct a good defense against federal prosecution and to challenge any suspect evidence.

The CA federal judge will take note of the following factors as he or she considers your sentence, if you are convicted:

  • Do you have family to support?
  • Did you come from a poor or disadvantaged background?
  • Do you have a criminal history?
  • Do you have anyone who can testify about your good character?
  • Have you sought substance abuse treatment, if you have a problem?

Punishments for Federal Crimes

Federal crimes usually have more severe punishment than California state crimes. Some of the most common federal crimes prosecuted in this state include the following:

  • Child pornography: You can be put in a federal prison for at least 15 but not more than 30 years. If you have a previous conviction for child pornography, you can receive anywhere from 25 to 50 years.
  • Mail fraud: The potential prison term for this crime is up to 20 years.
  • Money laundering: You can receive up to 20 years in federal prison for this crime.

Overview of Federal Sentencing Guidelines

If you are charged with a federal crime in California and are convicted, you will be sentenced per the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The guidelines take under consideration the serious of the federal offense as well as your criminal history. The guidelines have 43 different levels of offense seriousness. The more serious your crime, the higher the level of offense.

Each crime type is assigned a base level of offense, which is the beginning point to determine how serious the offense is. The more serious types of federal crimes have a higher base offense level. For example, the federal crime of trespassing has a base level offense of 4, while kidnapping has a base level offense of 32.

Also, each type of offense has several specific offense characteristics. These factors can vary from federal offense to federal offense, but they can increase or decrease your base level of offense and the sentence you receive. For example, a base offense characteristic for fraud, which has a 7 base offense level, increases your offense level based upon how much money or property was stolen in the offense. If the fraud offense involved a loss of $6000, you would receive a 2 level increase to the federal base offense level. This would bring the level up to 9. If the fraud had a $50,000 loss, you would have a 6 level increase, which brings the total to 13.

A specific offense characteristic for robbery, which has a 20 base offense level, involves using a gun in the commission of the crime. If you brandished a gun during a robbery, there will be a 5 level increase. This brings the total level to 25. If a gun was discharged in the robbery, you have a 7 level increase, bringing the level to 27.

Another important factor with federal sentencing is adjustments. These are factors that can apply to all federal offenses. Like an offense characteristic, they may increase or decrease your offense level. Some of the categories of adjustment include:

  • Victim related adjustments (did you rob an elderly woman or a young man?)
  • Your role in the offense (were you just the getaway driver in the robbery or did you brandish a weapon?)
  • Obstruction of justice

Some examples of possible adjustments and how they affect one’s sentence are:

  • If you were a minimal participant in the crime, your offense level may be decreased by 4.
  • If you knew the victim of the federal crime was vulnerable due to their age or mental condition, the offense level may be increased by 2.
  • If you obstructed justice, the offense level can be increased by 2.

When there are several federal counts of conviction, the Sentencing Guidelines allow a combined offense level. These rules allow for incremental punishment for more criminal conduct. The most serious federal offense will be used as the starting point. The other federal counts will determine how much the offense level should be increased.

If you accept responsibility for your crime, the judge may decrease the level of offense by 2 levels. The judge can decide if you have accepted responsibility by considering these factors:

  • Whether you admitted your role in the crime
  • Whether you made restitution before you were found guilty
  • Whether you pled guilty

Federal offenders in California who are able to qualify for the 2 level reduction and have an offense level than 15 can be given another 1 level reduction if they declare they will plead guilty.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines also carefully consider your criminal history when determining your sentence for a federal crime committed in California. You will be assigned one of six criminal history categories based upon your past criminal behavior. Category I is the least serious; many first time offenders are in this category. Category VI is the most serious and includes people with serious criminal records.

The final offense level is decided by taking your base offense level and adding/subtracting any offense characteristics and adjustments. After the basic guideline range is decided, the court can depart from the guideline range if there are aggravating or mitigating circumstances involved in the crime. Thus, the judge has some discretion in sentencing you above or below the range. But when doing so, the judge must explain in writing why he or she is departing from the guidelines.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

There currently are 189 federal crimes that feature a mandatory minimum sentence. This is a minimum sentence that the judge must impose if you are convicted of a federal crime in California. Most people in California facing a mandatory minimum sentence are drug offenders – nearly 80%. Below are the most common federal crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence:

  • Drug trafficking: You commit drug trafficking when you manufacture, distribute, dispense or possess with the intent to distribute any illegal controlled substance. The mandatory minimum sentence will depend upon the factors in the case, but can range from 5 years to life in prison.
  • Drug importation and exportation: This also is referred to as drug smuggling and can get you a mandatory minimum of anywhere from 5 to life in prison. Fines can be from $2 million to $20 million.
  • Weapons crimes: Violent or drug crimes involving weapons always have tough mandatory minimum sentences. Five or 10 years is commonly added to the offense if you are a first offender, and 25 years if you are a previous offender. If you used an automatic weapon, 30 years may be added to the offense, and if you are a second offender with an automatic weapon, you can receive a life sentence.
  • Immigration crimes: It is illegal to bring illegal aliens into the country if you have a belief that the illegal will commit a felony or will be used for a financial gain. This federal crime in California can be punished by a mandatory minimum sentence of up to five years.
  • Identity theft. Being convicted for this crime can get you a sentence of two to five years.
  • Sex offenses and child pornography: Many of these crimes are subject to mandatory minimum sentences, with at least five years being added to the underlying offense. The sentencing will depend upon the age of the victim, your offender status, and whether force, coercion or fraud was involved.

Even if you are not subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, most federal crimes in California can be punished with excessive fines, years in prison, and strict conditions for release after you have completed your sentence.

Top Crime Issues in California

The most common federal crime issues in California usually pertain to immigration, given the high number of undocumented workers in the state. Also a lot of federal drug crimes are committed in California.

Statute of Limitations in California

In all US states, there is a statute of limitations in place that affects the prosecution for many federal crimes. The idea of the policy is to ensure that a defendant cannot be charged for a crime years after the fact. If the federal prosecutor can prosecute 20 years after a crime occurred, this could have negative implications for the defense, as witnesses may have died and evidence may have been lost.

But note that for very serious crimes, such as murder, there is no statute of limitations.

For other crimes, the statute of limitations is as follows:

Civil Violation

  • Assault – 2 years
  • Contract – 10 years
  • False imprisonment – 2 years
  • Fraud – 5 years
  • Judgements – 20 years
  • Libel – 1 year
  • Personal injury – 2 years
  • Property damage – 5 years
  • Slander – 1 year
  • Wrongful death – 2 years

Criminal Violations

  • Arson – No limit
  • Assault – 3 years
  • Burglary – 3 years
  • Murder – no limit
  • Manslaughter – no limit
  • Rape – no limit or 3 years, depending on case
  • Kidnapping – 3 years
  • Robbery – 3 years


Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

About Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

Geoffrey G Nathan is a top federal crimes lawyer and Chief Editor of He is a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1988, admitted to practice in both Federal and State courts. If you have questions about your federal case he can help by calling 877.472.5775.