Federal Criminal Defense Procedure

Federal Criminal Defense Procedure

The procedure concerning criminal defense cases in federal courts throughout Ohio is very different from the procedure of felony criminal matters in state courts. Here you’ll find a step-by-step guide of how a federal criminal defense case unfolds.


A criminal case often begins with the filing of a Complaint, which is sometimes accompanied by a warrant to arrest based on the seriousness of the charge(s). After a Complaint is filed, the Government has a limited amount of time to seek a formal Indictment of any charges. A Complaint is often filed first in order for the Government and the Defendant to enter into a plea agreement before formal charges are sought.

Initial Appearance

After the Complaint is filed, a Defendant must be brought before the Court to be advised of the nature of the charges and the maximum possible penalties. If the Defendant is not in custody, they will often remain free with an obligation to be present at all future Court dates. Sometimes, Courts will place conditions on a Defendant’s release such as reporting requirements, drug screens, and/or employment requirements. If the Defendant is in the custody of the U.S. Marshall’s Office, the Court must set the matter for a Detention Hearing.

Detention Hearing

The purpose of a Detention Hearing is for the Court to determine whether there are any conditions of release from detention that will ensure a Defendant’s appearance at future Court dates and protect the public from possible harm. If the Court does not find any conditions of release that will adequately satisfy both criteria then the Defendant will be detained while the case is pending. A Defendant is allowed to present evidence and cross examine any witnesses called by the Government at the Detention Hearing.


After a Detention Hearing is held, the Court must hold an Arraignment, at which time a Defendant enters a formal plea to the charge(s). At this time a plea of not guilty is typically entered by a Defendant unless a plea is worked out ahead of time in which case a Defendant may plead guilty to a formal charge.


Frequently in federal Courts,a Defendant will sit down at a formal and confidential meeting with Federal Agents and an Assistant United States Attorney, at which time a Defendant may provide information to the Government in exchange for obtaining a plea deal or a recommended lighter sentence. This is often done because the Federal Sentencing Guidelines reward leniency in sentences for Defendants who cooperate with the Government in their case as opposed to Defendants who don’t cooperate and are later convicted. During a proffer, a Defendant signs a confidential agreement with the Government which provides that the Government may not use any statements made by a Defendant during a proffer against the Defendant in prosecuting the case unless the Defendant testifies at a later hearing and the testimony is not consistent with testimony provided during the proffer. Proffers are often informal and held outside of Court; however, the proceedings are recorded.

Pretrial Hearings/Motion Hearings

Any legal issues that are not able to be resolved will be formally addressed on the record in Court. Legal issues often include motions to suppress or throw out evidence in a case as a result of an alleged constitutional violation such as an illegal search or confession. These hearings are also used to address outstanding discovery issues concerning the disclosure of evidence.

Jury Trials

A Defendant has a number of constitutional rights associated with a jury trial, including the right to force the Government to prove the elements of each charge beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial at which the jurors must unanimously find a Defendant guilty; the right to remain silent and not be forced to testify at trial; the right to testify in defense of the charges at trial; the right to cross-examine or ask questions of each witness called by the Government at trial; the right to use the Court’s power to subpoena witnesses to appear and testify at trial; and the right to appeal any unfavorable rulings made by the Court during the case or any finding of guilt made by the jury.

Pre-Sentence Investigation

Following a plea of guilty by a Defendant or any finding of guilt at a trial, the United States Probation Office is responsible for conducting a Pre-Sentence Investigation of a Defendant in order to provide the Court with information that the Judge will use as one factor in sentencing a Defendant. The Pre-Sentence Investigation covers issues such as a Defendant’s family history, education history, history of drug and/or alcohol use, employment history, military history, history of mental health issues, and a Defendant’s criminal history. Following the Pre-Sentence Investigation, the Probation Office prepared an Initial Pre-Sentence Report, which is provided to a Defendant’s Attorney and to the Assistant United States Attorney for review prior to the preparation of a Final Pre-Sentence Report.


If a Defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty at a trial, the Court will hold a Sentencing Hearing, at which a sentence of probation, jail or prison may be imposed by a Judge. In determining an appropriate sentence, a Court is guided by the recommendations made by the United States Probation Office in the Final Pre-Sentence Report, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, and factors supporting a reduced sentence as set forth in the United States Code, which contains federal authoritative statutes.

If you find yourself in need of a criminal defense attorney in Columbus, call Probst Law Office, Inc., or visit our website at www.probstlawoffice.com to schedule a free consultation.