How Federal Criminal Cases Work

Information About What Happens In A Federal Criminal Case

This page is meant to be a resource for people caught up in the federal criminal justice system. It contains answers to general questions about how federal criminal cases work. To use the language of lawyers, it contains links to information about federal criminal procedure.

This page only deals with things that happen from when a person is charged with a crime in federal court until they're convicted. If you'd like information about what happens before that - please see our page on federal criminal investigations. If you'd like information about what happens after a conviction, please see our case on federal criminal appeals.

One big question we hear often from our clients is when they will get a chance to tell their side of what happened. Please see our answer to that question.

There are three steps to a federal criminal case. This page contains an overview, and there are links that have more information about specific parts of a case. And we're continually trying to make this page better - if there's a question you have that isn't answered here, please email us.


During this part of the case, a person is charged, whether they'll be in jail or released (and, if released, on what conditions), the Assistant United States Attorney will have to provide evidence about the case, and pretrial motions about whether the case should be dismissed or some evidence should be thrown out will be filed.

Trial or Plea

During this stage, one of three things will happen. In the majority of federal criminal cases, a person will plead guilty. Here's a video about how we think about whether a person should plead guilty or go to trial. If a person accused of a federal crime pleads guilty, the case goes to sentencing (sometimes people want to try to withdraw the plea before sentencing - here's a video on how that works).

If the person decides not to take a plea, the case goes to trial. If the jury says the person was not guilty, then the case is over and the the person goes on with their life. If the jury says the person was guilty, though, the case then goes to sentencing.

And, finally, in some rare cases a defense lawyer can talk a prosecutor into dismissing the case.


Federal sentencing is incredibly complicated. Here are some pages that answer some questions about how federal sentencing works:

What happens before sentencing in federal court?

How does federal sentencing work?

How do the federal sentencing guidelines work?

Other useful information about federal criminal procedure:

How immunity works in federal criminal cases

Overturning a guilty verdict in a federal criminal case

What happens in a federal criminal appeal?

Advice for people facing federal criminal charges
What should you do if you've been convicted of a federal crime?