To be indicted for a felony in federal court, the prosecutor has to take the case to the grand jury. A grand jury is composed of 23 people who hear witnesses who testify about the case. Their standard is "probable cause" and only a majority, 12 or more votes, are needed to indict. The grand jurors, the prosecutor, and any other government agents present are sworn to secrecy. The defendant is rarely asked to testify and even in fewer cases, will take up the offer. The defendant's lawyer cannot appear before the grand jury. This is the Constitutional check on the federal prosecutor's power.If you are subpoenaed to a grand jury, normally that means you are considered a witness and not a suspect. However, if you have any doubt whatsoever, you should consult a lawyer. You would have a right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment.
Sometimes before a grand jury can review the evidence, people are arrested during the actual crime. One example is during the attempted getaway after a bank robbery. Such a person will be jailed and brought to court the next business day following arrest. At that point, a government agent will file a declaration called a complaint which will detail the alleged facts of the crime. A person can be held for up to 30 days before a grand jury must review and decide whether to indict or not. In Western Washington, anyone arrested for a federal crime is taken to Federal Detention Center at Seatac, WA.
Whether arrested during or right after the crime, or after indictment, the defendant is not brought to court until the next business day. In many federal cases, the government moves to detain the defendant. That means the government can get three more court days before a bail hearing is held. And even at the bail or detention hearing, monetary bails are rarely set. The defendant is either detained with no bail or released on conditions, such as supervision and/or electronic monitoring while the case is pending.
Federal cases tend to involve large fraud schemes such as mortgage fraud, bank fraud, identity theft and the like. The feds also focus on large drug distribution cases and drug smuggling cases. The latter would include people caught trying to smuggle drugs or other contraband across the Canadian border, at Seatac airport or the many ports in this state. Bank robberies are another federal crime, since banks are federally insured. Other federal crimes might include counterfeit money, selling counterfeit products, illegal alien or immigrant smuggling cases, interstate prostitution rings, and any other crimes occurring on federal park or forest land, on army bases and related to other federal facilities. All felony crimes occurring on Indian Reservations are also prosecuted in federal court.
Sentences imposed in federal court are notoriously harsh. The federal sentencing guidelines use the amount of drugs or the amount of money involved in the fraud to increase the severity of the sentence. Since a Supreme Court case about 10 years ago, federal judges have discretion to go below the guideline sentence calculations. However, certain amounts of drugs, or use or possession of firearms invokes mandatory minimum sentences of 5 or 10 years, which the judge cannot go below. As is well known, most federal defendants plead guilty. That is because the federal prosecutor in Western Washington does not indict unless there is a great deal of evidence. With virtually unlimited federal resources, the deck is stacked deck most criminal defendants.