What To Do First If a Loved One Is Arrested by Federal Agents

This may be the scariest day of your life.

Odds are, you’re asleep, or just waking up. There is a tremendously loud banging at the door – enough to wake your neighbors. Someone is standing at your door yelling “Police” or “Federal Agents.” You or a family member come to the door in whatever you slept in, or in whatever you were able to throw on before you hurry to the door, afraid they’ll knock it down. If you have kids, you’re terrified about what they’re thinking and what they see and whether they’ll be safe. 

The agents take your loved one. Maybe it’s your husband, or your wife, or your child. If they’re nice, they’ll tell you a little bit about what’s going to happen next. Maybe they don’t. Whatever they tell you, you may be in too much shock to remember.

In this post, I’ll let you know what you should do first if someone you love has been arrested by federal agents. Things vary a little bit from court to court. And there may be things going on in your loved one’s situation that make it a little different. But, in general, this is a good starting point.

Please also understand this applies primarily to federal court. If your loved one has been arrested in state court, it’s a different process.

The Next Step 

Your loved one should be taken in front of a judge for a hearing. At this hearing, called an “initial appearance,” he or she will be told what the charges are, told about certain rights that he or she has, and the judge will talk about whether the person will be put in jail or released before trial and, if they’re going to be released, what the conditions of release will be.

The first thing you should do is find out when and where the hearing will be. Hopefully, the agent told you something about the charges and where they’re coming from. If so, Google the name of the court that the agent gave you – or what’s on the papers. The federal courthouse may be some place that isn’t obvious to you; it’s best to check rather than assume you know where it is.

Then, call that court’s pretrial services office. Tell them about the arrest and ask if they know what time the hearing will be. They may not know yet if it’s early. So you might want to call back in an hour or so.

Hire a Lawyer

Next, start to work on hiring a lawyer. It may be that hiring a lawyer for the initial appearance is less important. For an initial appearance, the most important thing is getting your family member out of jail and back with you. If he or she has never been arrested before and it’s not a crime of violence, there might be a good chance that he or she is not going to stay locked up. If so, you have a little bit more time to find a lawyer. 

Please see this page for some suggestions for how to find the right lawyer for you. And, of course, feel free to contact us.

In many districts, the judge will have the federal public defender’s office handle the initial appearance regardless of whether the person is going to hire a lawyer later. That’s not a bad idea if you can’t have a lawyer in place in the few hours you have before the hearing.

Go to the Hearing 

Give yourself plenty of time before the hearing to go to the courthouse. Before the hearing, find and go to the pretrial services office. Check in with that office in case they have questions about your family member that could help with his or her release. Make sure any information you give is accurate and truthful.

Then, find the courtroom where the hearing will be. The courtroom may be closed and locked, or it may be open. Talk to someone in there who is dressed like a lawyer or, if court isn’t in session, someone in the front of the room. Tell that person why you’re there and ask when the hearing will be. If the public defender is handling the case, talk to that person.

After the Hearing 

After the hearing, hopefully you’re walking out with your loved one. Take a deep breath together.

If not, ask where he or she is being held, then call that jail and ask what their visiting hours are. Find out how to put money on an account there so your family member can buy supplies or snack food – it just makes life there easier.

Then, if you haven’t already, start the work of hiring a lawyer in earnest, and start learning about how a federal criminal case works.