A crime doesn’t rise to the level of a Federal offense unless it violates a law passed by Congress. However, the effects of a case at this level can lead to a lifetime of repercussions if not handled properly. A Federal criminal charge must always be taken seriously. Going into Federal court without an attorney who can provide you with proof of experience litigating in that tribunal could be your most costly mistake, affecting you and your loved ones for decades.
Here are some common questions you might ask if you find yourself facing federal charges:
What Should I Do if I Get Arrested on Federal Charges?
Do not say anything to law enforcement, whatsoever. Regardless of their threats and promises, police officers and Federal agents are not there to help you. They are talking to you (actually interrogating you) to elicit confessions and other information to finish their investigation and take away any defenses you may have. Instead, you must insist on consulting with an attorney and persist in that demand. Officers are under no obligation to provide you an attorney (a common misconception) until after you have been brought before a judge, so your persistence may need to last several days. In such instances, have a friend or family contact a Federal criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Under no circumstances should you speak with agents or officers or detectives until your Federal criminal defense attorney arrives at your place of detention and assesses your situation. Assert your right to counsel and respectfully decline to answer any questions until your attorney is made available to you. This means you should not submit to any contact including, but not limited to, taking a polygraph test. Regardless of what you are told, there will always be time to speak with investigators and answer their questions, once you have competent legal counsel advising you. Law enforcement’s veiled threats are not issued to help you, but to help them. Don’t fall for it.
How Much Does a Federal Attorney Cost?
The fee for hiring an attorney to defend you in Federal court will depend on the nature of the allegations being lodged, and the scope of the underlying investigation. The question you should be asking yourself, however, is not, “Can I afford an attorney?” Rather, it ought to be, “Can I afford not to have counsel?” While it is true that our Constitution guarantees every citizen charged with a felony offense the right to appointed counsel if they cannot afford to hire a lawyer of their own choosing, the reality is that there is a significant difference between appointed and retained counsel. Most significantly, when you hire your own attorney, you are in a position to negotiate the frequency of contact, the amount of time dedicated to your case, and the degree of attention to your case. For example, you can ask for weekly meetings or phone conferences when hiring your own attorney. By contrast, an appointed attorney need not accede to such requests but needs only to provide “competent representation” which might mean that you only communicate with appointed counsel every few weeks or even longer. Your future depends on being defended by a capable, experienced attorney who knows how to defend you in Federal court, and who will keep you continually apprised about the intricacies of your case. When it comes to the very real possibility of losing your freedom and spending several years of your life in prison, competent representation and personal attention are priceless.
How Long Does the Process of A Federal Criminal Case Take?
Once charged in Federal court, the pre-trial “discovery” phase is a time-consuming process, sometimes taking up to two years to complete, depending on the complexity of the case and the number of other people charged alongside you (called “co-defendants”). Rarely do Federal criminal cases proceed all the way through a jury trial and verdict in less than a year. The experience of facing charges in Federal court can be nerve-wracking, which is why you should hire an attorney with the experience and knowledge, and time for personal attention, to guide you through the process of defending against a Federal criminal allegation.
How Is the Appellate Process Organized?
The appeals process begins immediately after a verdict and sentence are issued by the judge in the lower trial court (which is called a "superior court" in Arizona, “district court” in Texas, Kansas and also in the federal system, or a “circuit court” in Missouri). After that court makes a final judgment, the defendant can appeal, and does so by filing a short document entitled “Notice of Appeal.” This document is actually filed with the clerk of the trial court, who then begins the process of transferring the case files to the appellate court. Meanwhile, the attorney who will be handling the appeal for the defendant begins formulating issues to be argued to the judges of the court of appeals and identifying the documents the trial court’s clerk will need to transmit over to the appellate court.
In appellate courts, the attorney for the defense will try to convince a panel of judges that the prosecution or trial court committed legal errors, which should result in an order for a retrial, a reduction of sentence, or a reversal of the conviction and dismissal of all charges. If this appeal fails, the defendant can try appealing again to the state or federal supreme court.
Although a post-conviction case differs in many significant respects from an appeal, both are pursued with the goal in mind of reversing a conviction or shortening a sentence. While post-conviction litigation is explained elsewhere on this website and in the blog section, keep in mind that a defendant who loses a post-conviction challenge can appeal the denial of post-conviction relief, just as he or she did in their direct appeal.
Is There a Deadline to File an Appeal?
Yes, always! The deadline, however, differs from state to state, and from that in the Federal system. But never take “no” for an answer. Most appellate courts have rules which contain residual clauses that provide for ways to argue that an appeal filed “out of time” and beyond the deadline should be considered nonetheless, the same as if it had been filed on time initially. And, if a defendant’s appellate attorney misses a deadline, there are ways to re-open the appeal through an “ineffective assistance of appellate counsel” claim in post-conviction proceedings. So never lose hope. Consult with a competent appellate/ post-conviction lawyer before ever giving up on the basis that it is too late.
Do I Have Grounds for An Appeal if My Defense Attorney Was Incompetent?
Yes. As explained elsewhere on this website, defendants have the right to a competent attorney. By carefully reviewing the details of your case, it may be determined that your original defense attorney failed to provide an adequate defense. This information can be used in a post-conviction case where the defense argues the original defense attorney committed legal errors, so much so that the case deserves a retrial, reduction of sentence, or dismissal. And, if a post-conviction claim is initially denied, that ruling can indeed be appealed, in most instances.