A Brief Description of the Federal Criminal Justice Process | Federal Bureau of Investigation (2023)

Some victims are unfamiliar with the operation of the federal criminal justice system. For others, their knowledge is limited to what they have seen on TV or in the movies, which oftentimes is wrong. To help federal crime victims better understand how the federal criminal justice system works, this page briefly describes common steps taken in the investigation and prosecution of a federal crime.

Not every step described below will occur in every case. In some cases, the investigation or trial may involve additional events or proceedings, all of which can take a long time to complete. An FBI victim specialist or the victim witness coordinator at the U.S. Attorney’s Office can explain the specific process in a particular case.

I. The Pretrial Stage

Investigations, Grand Juries, and Arrests

If a crime is brought to the attention of federal authorities, whether by a victim of the crime or a witness to it (e.g., a bank robbery), a federal law enforcement agency will undertake an investigation to determine whether a federal offense was committed and, if so, who committed it. Two points should be kept in mind:

First: Not every crime is a federal offense. For example, murder is a crime in all 50 states, but it is not a federal offense unless, for example, a federal official is murdered while performing official functions. Robbery also is outlawed in every state, but it is not a federal offense unless there is some connection with the federal government, such as the robbery of a federally insured bank. Federal law enforcement agencies will investigate a crime only if there is reason to believe that the crime violated federal law.

Second: The nature of the federal offense may determine which agency undertakes the investigation. Not every federal law enforcement agency has the responsibility to investigate every crime. For example, the Secret Service is responsible for investigating counterfeiting of currency, and the FBI is the lead federal agency for terrorism cases. This assignment of functions helps different agencies develop expertise, but it also means that federal law enforcement agencies are not like local police forces—they do not each handle whatever federal crime comes their way.

If the agency concludes that a crime was committed and identifies a suspect, federal law enforcement officers (known as special agents) may make an arrest without obtaining an arrest warrant; may obtain an arrest warrant for a named person; or, in some circumstances, may delay making an arrest in order to obtain additional evidence proving the suspect’s guilt.

In the case of federal offenses that are colloquially known as white-collar crimes (e.g., violations of the federal securities laws), agents often will need to obtain documents from suspects and innocent parties as part of the investigation. To do so, the agents can apply for a search warrant from a magistrate (or judge) to search a particular site for relevant evidence. Alternatively, the agents can request a subpoena from a grand jury.

A grand jury is an impartial body of citizens drawn from the community that has the responsibility to investigate whether a crime has been committed and by whom. In order to make that determination, a grand jury may issue subpoenas to whoever may have evidence relevant to the grand jury’s investigation. As part of its investigation, the grand jury also has power to compel testimony, including the testimony of a crime victim. If the grand jury concludes that there is probable cause to believe that a particular individual committed a crime, the grand jury will issue a charging document known as an indictment. Whenever a grand jury is involved in an investigation, the agents will work closely with an attorney from the U.S. government, either from the local U.S. Attorney’s Office or the U.S. Department of Justice, before making an arrest in order to determine whether a crime was committed and, if so, who is responsible.

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Initial Appearance

If a magistrate has issued a search warrant for a suspect or if a grand jury has returned an indictment against a suspect, federal agents will arrest the suspect and place him or her in custody pending court proceedings. If there has been no arrest warrant or indictment, the arresting agents must bring the suspect before a magistrate (or judge), who then will determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the arrestee committed a crime. This initial appearance generally will occur as soon as practicable following arrest and must occur before 72 hours have passed. At the initial appearance, the court will inform the arrestee of the charges and advise him or her of the rights to counsel and to remain silent. In some cases, the defendant may be released at the initial appearance. But in other cases, the prosecutor may seek to have the accused held in custody until the trial has concluded because the accused is seen as a danger to the community.

A Brief Description of the Federal Criminal Justice Process | Federal Bureau of Investigation (1)

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Arraignment is the stage at which the defendant formally is told what the charges are and is given a copy of them. The defendant then enters a plea responding to those charges, which generally is not guilty or guilty. If the defendant and his attorney already have negotiated with the prosecutor and have agreed upon a plea bargain, the defendant may enter a guilty plea at the arraignment as part of the plea bargain. Plea bargaining is discussed below.

Discovery and Motion Practice

After arraignment and before trial, the defendant and the government engage in the discovery and motions process. Discovery is the pretrial process by which the defendant and—to a more limited extent—the prosecutor can demand information and material about the case from the other party. In addition, the defense and prosecution usually engage in considerable pretrial motion practice. A motion is the name given to papers filed with the district court asking it to do something in the case. For example, motions filed by the defense may seek to dismiss the charges, to suppress evidence, or to introduce specific evidence at trial. Motions by the prosecutor may include a request for reciprocal disclosure or a request for defendant to disclose alibi or psychiatric evidence.

A crime victim’s attorney may also file motions asserting the victim’s rights. For example, a victim’s attorney may seek to quash a subpoena issued to a victim to prevent the victim’s personally identifying information (PII) from being made public, or allow the victim to remain in the courtroom during the trial.

Plea Bargaining

The government and the defendant may agree to forego a trial and have the defendant enter a plea of guilty as part of a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an agreement that the defendant will plead guilty to the original or another charge in return for some concession from the prosecutor. Typical concessions include dismissal of other charges or a recommendation to the judge for a particular sentence (or an agreement not to oppose the defendant’s request for a particular sentence). If charges have been filed, a victim will have a reasonable opportunity to confer with the prosecutor before the plea bargain results in a formal guilty plea. Nonetheless, a victim does not have a right to veto the prosecutor’s decision to engage in plea negotiations or to accept a guilty plea from a defendant as part of a plea bargain.

If a plea agreement has been reached, the government and defense counsel present that agreement to the court. A victim may appear in court and make a statement regarding the plea agreement. If the court accepts the agreement, the court will set a date for sentencing and decide whether the defendant should be held in custody until then. The law does not require a federal court to accept a plea agreement. Rather, the court may accept the agreement, reject it, or discuss with the parties alternatives that are acceptable to the court. If the court rejects the plea agreement, the defendant may withdraw the guilty plea, and the case will proceed to trial.

(Video) The Federal Criminal Process Part I: The Investigation and Pretrial Phases

II. The Trial

A trial is the proceeding during which the government and the defense present evidence to prove or disprove the charges. Ordinarily, a trial is held before a jury, but there are circumstances in which the case will be tried to the judge alone, which is known as a bench trial. The purpose of the trial is to decide whether the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the truth of the charges against the accused, but a victim is not a bystander in that process. For example, a victim may be called to testify as a witness to the crime or to explain how the victim was harmed by the crime. Moreover, except in extraordinary circumstances, a victim cannot be excluded from the trial, even if the victim later will testify, which enables a victim to observe the in-court proceedings.

Generally, a trial proceeds as follows:

Voir Dire

Voir dire is the process by which members of the community selected to become potential jurors in a specific case are questioned and selected for a particular case. In a capital case, voir dire is split into two phases: the general voir dire phase and the death qualification phase. The reason for the separate death qualification phase is that the government is entitled to excuse from the jury anyone who will not consider imposing the death penalty when it is a potential punishment in a specific case.

The Guilt Stage: Opening Argument, Presentation of Evidence, Closing Arguments, Jury Instructions, and Deliberations

The guilt phase generally begins with the prosecutor’s opening statement. The defense has the option of making its own opening statement immediately afterwards or reserving its opening statement for the beginning of its case-in-chief. The prosecutor then presents the government’s proof through physical evidence and witnesses. The defense is entitled to cross-examine any witnesses questioned by the government. Once the government has completed its case, the defense may move the court to acquit the defendant, on the ground that there is legally insufficient evidence to convict. If the court denies the defense motion, the defense may present its own case, and the prosecutor may cross-examine any witnesses presented by the defense. Following the defense case, the prosecutor may present evidence to rebut the defendant’s case. Once the prosecutor concludes its rebuttal case, the defense again can move for an acquittal. If the court denies that motion, the parties present their closing arguments: first the prosecutor, then the defense, and finally the prosecutor again (the government goes first and last because it has the burden of proof). Following closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury on the relevant law for it to apply. Afterwards, the jury will retire to decide the case. When the jury has reached its decision, the jury will return to the courtroom and announce its verdict. If there is no jury, the judge will deliberate and return a verdict.

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The Sentencing Stage: The Pre-Sentence Investigation, the Defendant’s Right of Allocution, the Victim Impact Statement, the Parties’ Arguments, and the Imposition of Sentence

If the jury or judge finds the defendant guilty of at least one count charged in the indictment, the court will impose some sentence on the offender. But before the court does so, a probation officer will conduct a background investigation. The probation officer will investigate any aggravating and mitigating factors present in the case and will prepare a pre-sentence report summarizing those factors for the judge. Most reports contain a variety of information that may be helpful to the court: e.g., information about the offender’s prior criminal record, personal characteristics, financial condition, social history, and circumstances affecting his or her behavior, as well as information regarding the effect of the crime on the victim.

Regarding that last subject: During the background investigation, a probation officer will speak with the victim. The officer also will ask the victim to complete a form and to provide whatever documents the victim may have showing losses or expenses caused by the crime (e.g., medical bills, lost income, etc.) The victim also will have an opportunity to prepare what is called a victim impact statement—a statement describing, in the victim’s own words, the effect of the crime on the victim. That statement will be presented to the judge and made a part of the record at sentencing.

The offender has the right to be present for sentencing, as does a victim. Both persons may make a statement before the court imposes sentence. The lawyer for the government and the offender also will address the court regarding the sentence. If a victim is represented by an attorney, the victim’s counsel also can address the court at sentencing.

After hearing from those parties and the government, the court may sentence the offender to imprisonment, probation, community service, or another such program. If an offender is imprisoned, the offender will be placed on a period of post-release supervision.

The court also can fine the offender or order the offender to pay restitution to the victim. Restitution is a monetary payment made by an offender to the victim to compensate the victim for the financial harm caused by the crime. In some cases, restitution is a mandatory component of the sentence, and the judge must order to offender to pay it. A victim can urge the court at sentencing to enter an order requiring the offender to make restitution to the victim.

III. Post-Trial Proceedings

After sentencing, the offender may appeal his conviction or sentence in the hope of having either one set aside. An offender has the right to appeal to a circuit court of appeals. If that court does not grant the offender the relief he seeks, he or she can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, but the Supreme Court has discretion whether to review an offender’s case, and it reviews very few federal criminal cases each year. If the Supreme Court decides not to review the offender’s case (or, if it does, but upholds his conviction and sentence), the judgment against the offender now is final. At that point, the offender has few opportunities to obtain relief.

The offender can challenge his conviction or sentence in a habeas corpus proceeding, but there are only limited opportunities for the offender to obtain that relief. A victim can attend in-court proceedings involving the offender’s habeas corpus challenge to his conviction or sentence. Another avenue of relief is to ask the president for clemency—that is, to pardon his crime or reduce his sentence—but the president exercises his clemency power rarely. A victim does not have a right to attend Justice Department meetings on a clemency application, let alone to meet the president before he takes action on a clemency application, but a victim can write to the Justice Department about the matter.

For most of the 20th century, an imprisoned offender could be released on parole before completing his sentence. A paroled inmate was subject to supervision until he had completed his sentence. Congress repealed the federal parole laws more than 20 years ago, but offenders who committed crimes before November 1987 are still eligible for parole. A victim has the right to be notified of a hearing at which government officials would decide whether to parole an offender.

(Video) Criminal Investigations & Prosecutions:From Federal to Private Practice


What is Federal Bureau of Investigation? ›

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) enforces federal law, and investigates a variety of criminal activity including terrorism, cybercrime, white collar crimes, public corruption, civil rights violations, and other major crimes.

What are the main functions of the FBI? ›

The mission of the FBI is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States. What are the primary investigative functions of the FBI? The FBI has divided its investigations into programs, such as domestic and international terrorism, foreign counterintelligence, cyber crime, etc.

What are the cases handled by the National Bureau of Investigation? ›

The mission of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is to provide investigative and technical assistance to the government's law enforcement agencies in the enforcement of laws against crime, illegal drugs, and terrorism; to conduct background investigations of applicants for government positions; to investigate ...

Who leads the Federal Bureau of Investigation? ›

The FBI is led by a Director, who is appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the Senate for a term not to exceed 10 years. The current Director is Christopher Wray.

Who investigates a federal crime? ›

Federal prosecutors at the United States Attorney's Office for the Central District of California are responsible for the enforcement of federal laws and the prosecution of individuals who commit a federal criminal offense.

What is the FBI in simple terms? ›

The FBI stands for Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Federal” refers to the national government of the United States. “Bureau” is another word for department or division of government. “Investigation” is what we do—gathering facts and evidence to solve and prevent crimes.

What kind of things do the FBI handle? ›

The FBI has divided its investigations into a number of programs, such as domestic and international terrorism, foreign counterintelligence, cyber crime, public corruption, civil rights, organized crime/drugs, white-collar crime, violent crimes and major offenders, and applicant matters.

What powers do FBI agents have? ›

In the U.S. and its territories, FBI special agents may make arrests for any federal offense committed in their presence or when they have reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed, or is committing, a felony violation of U.S. laws.

What is currently the top priority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation? ›

The FBI's mission is to uphold the Constitution and protect the American people. The FBI's major priorities are to: Protect the United States from terrorist attack. Protect the U.S. against foreign intelligence, espionage, and cyber operations.

What is the function of the investigation? ›

The purpose of an investigation is to establish relevant facts to prove or disprove allegations of fraud and corruption. It is a legally established fact-finding process conducted in an impartial and objective manner, with the aim to establish the relevant facts and make recommendations in this connection.

What are the 7 services of NBI? ›

– The NBI shall be headed by a Director and assisted by two (2) Deputy Directors, one for Administration and another for Operations, and an Assistant Director for each of the following seven (7) Services: Investigation Service, Intelligence Service, Human Resource and Management Service, Comptroller Service, Forensic ...

Why was the Bureau of investigation created? ›

Seeking to form an independent and more efficient investigative arm, in 1908 the Department of Justice hired 10 former Secret Service employees to join an expanded Office of the Chief Examiner. The date when these agents reported to duty—July 26, 1908—is celebrated as the genesis of the FBI.

When was the Federal Bureau of Investigation created? ›

What law established the Bureau of investigation? ›

Republic Act No. 157 (June 19, 1947) reorganized the Division of Investigation into the Bureau of Investigation under the Department of Justice (DOJ).

What is the process for a federal investigation? ›

Collecting Evidence in Federal Investigations

Possible witnesses will be interviewed. Surveillance will be conducted. Documentation will be analyzed. Federal investigators will use any means possible to collect evidence they believe will prove you committed a crime.

What is the investigation process? ›

The investigative process is a progression of activities or steps moving from evidence gathering tasks, to information analysis, to theory development and validation, to forming reasonable ground to believe, and finally to the arrest and charge of a suspect.

What are the five stages of the criminal justice process? ›

The chart summarizes the most common events in the criminal and juvenile justice systems including entry into the criminal justice system, prosecution and pretrial services, adjudication, sentencing and sanctions, and corrections.

What does the FBI protect against? ›

The FBI is the nation's lead federal law enforcement agency for investigating and preventing acts of domestic and international terrorism. It is the lead federal agency for investigating attacks involving weapons of mass destruction—those involving chemical, radiological, or biological agents or nuclear weapons.

How do you know if the feds are investigating you? ›

Usually, you will find out you are under investigation when agents come to your door, or otherwise approach you to ask you questions about a case you are suspected in. You may also hear from others that agents are asking questions about you.

What kind of data does the FBI collect? ›

It captures details on each single crime incident—as well as on separate offenses within the same incident. In 2021, the historic Summary Reporting System (SRS) data collection, which collected more limited information than the more robust NIBRS, was phased out.

What do FBI agents do on a daily basis? ›

Our agents enforce many different federal laws and perform various roles in the Bureau, so there really is no such thing as a “typical day” for an FBI agent. Agents in our field offices, for example, could be testifying in federal court one day and executing a search warrant and gathering evidence the next.

Do FBI agents carry guns off duty? ›

The agency allows, but does not require, off-duty officers to carry their agency-issued firearm so they may be prepared to act as police officers when circumstances are appropriate.

Does everyone have a FBI number? ›

An individual's FBI Number is a unique identification number assigned to each individual who has a record in the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a nation-wide database of fingerprint and criminal history records of individuals who have been arrested.

Can the FBI take over any case? ›

If a crime is committed that is a violation of local, state, and federal laws, does the FBI “take over” the investigation? No. State and local law enforcement agencies are not subordinate to the FBI, and the FBI does not supervise or take over their investigations.

What is the most important stages of criminal investigation? ›

Interrogation of suspects is one of the most important functions of criminal investigation. In most countries this proceeding is delicate because a confession gained in violation of the suspect's rights can be repudiated in court.

What are the 8 priorities of the FBI? ›

Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Top Terrorism Threats. Preventing terrorist attacks, from any place, by any actor, remains the FBI's top priority. ...
  • Cyber. ...
  • Foreign Influence. ...
  • Criminal Threats. ...
  • Violent Crime. ...
  • Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) ...
  • Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking. ...
  • Civil Rights.
4 Aug 2022

What are the four steps of the investigation process? ›

The 4 Stages of an Incident Investigation
  • Preserve and Document the Incident Scene. An incident investigator's first priority should be to ensure that the incident site is safe and secure. ...
  • Collecting Information. a Interviewing witnesses. ...
  • Determine Root Causes. ...
  • Implement Corrective Actions.
24 Jan 2019

What is the importance and role of criminal investigation? ›

Today, criminal investigation is a broad term encompassing a wide range of specialities that aim to determine how events occurred, and to establish an evidence-based fact pattern to prove the guilt or innocence of an accused person in a criminal event.

What are the five functions of criminal investigation? ›

The five groups include identifying and collecting all available evidence, identifying all the significant people involved (witnesses, victims, and possible suspects), accurately documenting the criminal event, accurately documenting the investigative actions, and formulating a reasonable investigative plan to identify ...

What is the important role of NBI in law enforcement? ›

NBI is mandated to investigate/take on the following cases: Extrajudicial/extra-legal killings by state security forces against media practitioners/activists. Murders of justices and judges. Violations of the Cybercrime Prevention Act (Republic Act No. What are the main saving functions?

How many NBI agents are there? ›

The NBI shall be composed of at least 14,000 employees, 5,000 of whom shall be NBI Agents/ Special Investigators deployed in all Congressional Districts and who, together with the existing and qualified personnel of the NBI, shall form the nucleus of the newly organized NBI, provided that such number of employees may, ...

What are the benefits of NBI? ›

Nowadays, the NBI Clearance can be used as proof identity when making changes in legal documents, for local employment and for overseas employment, where agencies and employers can verify one's record on compliance with the law.

Does Federal Bureau of Investigation call you? ›

Since criminals sometimes use “spoofing services” to choose the number or name that shows up on your phone, the call may appear to come from a government agency, from a consulate, or from the FBI or the police, but it actually does not. These calls are fake or “scam” calls.

What kind of crimes does the FBI investigate? ›

The FBI has divided its investigations into a number of programs, such as domestic and international terrorism, foreign counterintelligence, cyber crime, public corruption, civil rights, organized crime/drugs, white-collar crime, violent crimes and major offenders, and applicant matters.

What triggers a federal investigation? ›

Federal law enforcement agencies will investigate a crime only if there is reason to believe that the crime violated federal law. Second: The nature of the federal offense may determine which agency undertakes the investigation. Not every federal law enforcement agency has the responsibility to investigate every crime.

What should you not do when under federal investigation? ›

With that in mind, here are five things you should not do if you're under federal investigation.
  1. Fail to Hire a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer. ...
  2. Fail to Enforce Your Rights. ...
  3. Lie to a Federal Investigator or Prosecutor. ...
  4. Discuss Your Case Online or with Friends. ...
  5. Destroy Evidence.
20 Aug 2019

Why do federal investigations take so long? ›

Federal Criminal Cases are More Sophisticated

Two, usually federal cases are more sophisticated and involve more moving parts than state cases and that's why the federal cases are taking longer to file. The feds don't just file any case.

How long can a federal investigation last? ›

So if you have still not been charged after the time set by the statute of limitations, the investigation is effectively over. For most federal crimes, the statute of limitations is five years. Bank fraud has a statute of limitations of ten years. Immigration violations and arson are also subject to a ten year limit.

What is the process of being investigated? ›

The investigative process is a progression of activities or steps moving from evidence gathering tasks, to information analysis, to theory development and validation, to forming reasonable ground to believe, and finally to the arrest and charge of a suspect.

How do you know when an investigation is over? ›

An investigation is typically closed when all the investigation allegations are resolved, the investigation findings do not require further action by the organization, and the investigation is approved. When an investigation is closed, the reason for closing the investigation is specified.

How do you investigate a case? ›

The investigation of an offence consists of:
  1. Proceeding to the spot.
  2. Ascertainment of facts and circumstances of the case.
  3. Discovery and arrest of the suspect.
  4. Collection of evidence which may include: ...
  5. Formation of opinion as to whether there is a case for trial, and taking necessary steps accordingly. [
17 Apr 2020

What powers do the FBI have? ›

Federal law gives the FBI authority to investigate all federal crime not assigned exclusively to another federal agency (28, Section 533 of the U.S. Code). Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 533, authorizes the attorney general to appoint officials to detect and prosecute crimes against the United States.

What are the four elements of the investigation process? ›

The 4 Stages of an Incident Investigation
  • Preserve and Document the Incident Scene. An incident investigator's first priority should be to ensure that the incident site is safe and secure. ...
  • Collecting Information. a Interviewing witnesses. ...
  • Determine Root Causes. ...
  • Implement Corrective Actions.
24 Jan 2019

What do you do on a federal investigation? ›

What You Should Do
  • Immediately hire a federal criminal defense attorney.
  • Find out your rights.
  • Be honest with your attorney.
  • Find out whether you are a witness, subject or target.
  • Consider whether you want to cooperate with the investigation.
  • Keep detailed records.
  • Make copies of any pertinent documents.

What are the 3 elements of investigation? ›

A criminal investigation has three elements: the process, crime related information, and goals (Brandl, 2014).


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