A federal charge can be brought against you for a variety of crimes, and results in a complaint or indictment against you. The complaint is written by the US attorney on the case about the federal crime charge.
If there is a preliminary hearing, which seldom occurs at the federal level, once you are bound over, you proceed directly to trial without going to the grand jury. After a complaint is filed against you, and prior to any preliminary hearing, the US attorney on the case usually calls a grand jury, and then indicts you, and then you go trial. So, you either will go to the preliminary hearing or to the grand jury, depending upon the situation.
Finding Out About a Federal Charge
One of the difficult aspects about a federal charge is actually a very basic one: how to know that you have been charged with a federal crime. Some cases it can be very difficult that you have a charge pending against you until you are actually arrested. While it is good at least to know that you are charged, it would be much more helpful to know in advance that you have a charge against you.
If you are arrested by an FBI or other type of federal agent, you then are brought into the federal district court and are put in front of a magistrate. In this type of case, it is obvious you have been charged with a federal crime.
Or, you may get a letter from a federal prosecutor that states you have been charged, and that you must make an appearance at a federal courthouse for a hearing. The letter may include a photocopy of the charging document, the indictment, or possibly the criminal complaint in some cases. These documents will state with what you have been charged. A benefit of getting a letter is at least you are not being physically taken out of your home, although more often, agents will come to the door and arrest you.
There also are some cases where it is not as clear that you are being charged. A federal officer may come to your door and ask you questions. They will tell you it will help your case if you talk with them, but many experts would advise saying nothing without talking to a federal charge defense attorney first.
Another possibility is that the Secret Service or another federal branch of law enforcement will execute a warrant on your home or office. Agents may come in and go through your papers and personal effects. This can be a very upsetting experience. But remember that a search warrant is not proof of anything and does not mean there is a federal charge against you.
If agents have done a search on your home and gone through your things, it is helpful to contact your attorney to see what the status of the investigation is. As your attorney can tell you, in a federal investigation, you can be a target, subject or witness, and you often do not know for sure which you are, without talking to an attorney.
If federal agents visit you and go through your home, then you know you are a target of an investigation. But you will not know if there are charges against you until you are placed under arrest.
Lastly, there are cases where you could be charged with a federal crime and be unaware of it. You could be indicted and the indictment is then sealed for weeks or months. This happens rarely, but it is possible.
Fortunately, with the Internet today there are websites available that you can use to determine if you have charges against you.
Use the websites below to learn more about special federal charge cases and laws.
On this website you can look up the pertinent federal laws related to your federal charge. For example, if you have a federal charge against you for trafficking in counterfeit goods, or services, you would enter those keywords into the search. The related law then comes up – 18 USC 2320: Trafficking in counterfeit goods or services. The entire federal law regarding this federal charge is listed, as well as penalties and additional penalties if serious bodily injury or death occurs.
This is another good website that has the entire US Code broken up by Title so that it is easy to scan and to find the area of law that you need to find. Most of the information needed about federal charges and crimes will be found under US Code: Title 18 – Crimes and Criminal Procedure. For example, if you are charged with the federal crime of assault, 18 US Code Chapter 7 provides all of the relevant statutes covering this type of crime. The legal definition of the crime is provided, as well as the penalty.
This is a federal website called Public Access to Court Electronic Records or PACER. You can access all of the US federal court websites from this site, including the US Supreme Court, US Courts of Appeals, US District Courts, US Bankruptcy Courts, and National Courts. You can visit each of these federal court websites and look up information pertaining to your federal charge.
This is a commercial research services that has extensive searching and monitoring services for all types of cases in federal, bankruptcy and appellate courts, and also many state courts. This is a paid website that you need to have a monthly subscription for.
This is actually a free extension available for the Firefox and Chrome browsers that improves the ease of use for PACER, which is the electronic public access system for US federal and bankruptcy courts listed above. This product will tell you when there are free documents available, which will save you money. It also provides better filenames and makes the database easier to search for the federal charge or case you want.
As you go through PACER with this browser add on, RECAP uploads docket files for you and happens without you incurring any fees. And on each docket page RECAP will inform you if there are any free versions of the documents that are already viewable in the archive.
Regarding file names, the PDFs that you download from PACER usually have numbered names, such as 76595844.pdf. RECAP renames these into understandable names that will include the PACER court ID, case ID and docket entry number.
By using these websites, you will be able to learn more about federal charges and federal court cases very quickly.