Anatomy of a Federal Case

Experienced Former Prosecutors Helping You Navigate the Federal Process

The federal criminal process entails numerous steps and can be quite overwhelming to anyone without experience who tries to navigate it. However, the lawyers of Collins Gann McCloskey & Barry PLLC are experienced professionals who have handled diverse cases in the federal courts. Attorney Rick Collins has defended matters throughout many districts across the US, and he and his partners are all former prosecutors, allowing them to more effectively anticipate what the other side might bring against you.

If you have been charged with a federal crime, reach out to the firm for legal guidance and support. They can help you navigate the following steps of the federal criminal process:

  • Investigation
  • Charging
  • Initial Hearing/Arraignment
  • Discovery
  • Plea Bargaining
  • Preliminary Hearing
  • Pre-Trial Motions
  • Trial
  • Post-Trial Motions
  • Sentencing

The Investigation and Arrest

There are several federal agencies that may kick off the federal criminal process with an investigation, such as:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • United States Secret Service (USSS)
  • Homeland Security Investigation (DHS/HSI)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

The investigators will aim to obtain direct and circumstantial evidence to bring to the prosecutor, and part of the investigation could involve a search warrant. Note that ahead of the investigation, depending on the case, the first step may actually be an arrest if police have probable cause (e.g., they actually witnessed the suspect committing the crime). It’s important to get defense counsel involved as early as possible in the process to best protect your rights.


Both the defense and the prosecution should begin assessing the strengths or weaknesses of their respective positions as early as possible. The federal government has the advantage, because their witnesses – law enforcement agents – have collected the relevant evidence, such as contraband (later yielding laboratory analysis), wiretaps, electronic communications, banking records and the like. The defense must often learn about what evidence the government intends to use against the client. This important step in the federal process is called discovery. Prior to trial, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor will familiarize themselves with the case, which could mean talking to witnesses, studying the evidence, and developing a trial strategy. The prosecutors must provide the defendant copies of materials and evidence that they intend to use at trial – this part of the process is called discovery. 

Note that the prosecutor has a continuing obligation to provide the defendant documents and other information relevant to the case. Failure of the prosecutor to do so can result in fines/sanctions from the court. The prosecutor is also required to provide the defense with exculpatory evidence, or evidence that could show the defendant’s innocence. Failure to turn this over to the defense is a serious ethical violation. 


The federal government will assess the strength of their case to determine if a plea bargain is appropriate. A plea bargain can be an offer to allow a defendant to plead guilty to a reduced set of charges and potentially limit prison exposure. If the government has a strong case, they may offer the defendant a plea deal to avoid the expense and effort of a trial. If the case is weak or has proof or other problems, but the prosecutor believes that the defendant is guilty, they may offer a more lenient plea offer to entice a guilty plea. The defense lawyer must play an active role in plea negotiations – this is a critical stage in obtaining the best result possible. Keep in mind that generally the defendant may plead guilty only if they actually committed the crime and admit to doing so in open court before the judge. After pleading guilty, a defendant’s sentence will be determined by the judge (presumably less than the sentence if they had been convicted at trial), and instead of going to trial they will proceed to a sentencing hearing. 

Pre-Trial, Trial, & Post-Trial Motions

If trial looms on the horizon, however, it is critical to prepare for pre-trial, trial, and post-trial motions. Recall that a motion is an application to the court made by the defense attorney or prosecutor requesting that the court make a decision on a certain issue before the trial begins. This motion can affect the trial, courtroom, defendants, evidence, or testimony.

Some examples of pre-trial motions are:

  • Motion to Dismiss – an attempt to get the judge to dismiss a charge or the case, often if there is not enough evidence or the alleged facts do not amount to a crime
  • Motion to Suppress – an attempt to keep certain statements or evidence from being introduced as evidence, such as evidence obtained illegally via search without a warrant
  • Motion for Change of Venue – the trial to another venue to protect the defendant’s right to an impartial jury

Proceeding to trial, the facts of a case will be presented to a jury, and they will decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty based on the prosecutor’s and defense attorney’s statements and evidence provided. The judge’s role is primarily to oversee what evidence is admissible and facilitate the process fairly.

Following trial, if the defendant is convicted, there are several post-trial motions that can be filed, such as:

  • Motion for a New Trial – rarely approved, the court can vacate the judgment and allow for a new trial
  • Motion for Judgment of Acquittal – the court may set aside the jury’s verdict and allow the defendant to go free
  • Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct a Sentence – often for the purpose of correcting a clerical error in the sentence

The federal criminal process can be lengthy, but an experienced federal defense attorney such as the law firm of Collins Gann McCloskey & Barry PLLC can guide you through every step, from arrest to discovery to trial and motions.

Schedule a free consultation with Attorney Rick Collins online or at (516) 243-8255 to discuss your legal options in more detail today.

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