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Federal Criminal Law

Introduction to the Federal Criminal Law System

If you have been charged with a federal crime you are probably feeling overwhelmed and intimidated. There is just something more ominous about being prosecuted by the United States Government rather than the State of Michigan, or a local municipality, such as the City of Troy, or the Township of Bloomfield Hills. What is more, few people ever step foot in a federal court building, and the entire process is incredibly daunting for most people. We have found that after much of the mystery and mystic is removed, people feel less intimidated and make better decisions regarding the defense of their case. Consequently, we have prepared this federal criminal law primer to help you understand how the federal court system works, and what to expect as your criminal case moves through it. The following pages were written with that goal in mind.

History of the Federal Courts

It is well known that the United States government is comprised of 3 co-equal branches of government. Each of these branches is designated and described within the United States Constitution, and specifically as it relates to the federal court system, the Constitution provides, in Article III, section 1, that "[t]he judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." Obviously, this is not a lot of guidance on how to create these courts. What exactly is an "inferior court," what kinds of cases will be handled by them, and how will the judges and prosecutors be selected?

These are the kinds of questions that our Federal Legislators have grappled with and the exact way in which this Article has been carried out has changed over time. Currently, there are four designated courts in the Federal court system. First, of course, is the Supreme Court of the United States. There are also three inferior courts, including the U.S. courts of appeals, the U.S. district courts and the U.S. Court of International Trade.

When we think of a federal criminal case, it is only the U.S. district courts with which we are concerned. All federal crimes will be prosecuted in the U.S. district courts, the process of which we will describe in detail later. As an interesting artifact of history, for the first eighty-five of eighty-six years in this country there were no federal courts. Disputes, including what limited "federal" crimes existed under federal law, were resolved by state courts.

Originally, there were 13 judicial districts spread throughout the United States and these courts served as the trial courts for admiralty and maritime cases as well as some minor criminal cases. Later, Congress authorized the president of the United States to appoint a Marshall and federal prosecutor for these district courts and the prosecutor was then called a district attorney.

As time progressed, particularly in the 19th century, the jurisdiction of the district courts was expanded by Congress to include a much larger range of non-capital criminal cases. This trend has continued and has caused many criminal defense attorneys to be concerned over the increasing federalization of criminal activity.

What is the Jurisdiction of the Federal Criminal Courts?

When courts and lawyers speak of and use the term "jurisdiction," they basically are referring to a court's power and authority to preside over and hear certain kinds of cases. Like all courts, be they state or federal, federal criminal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.

In this context, limited means the federal criminal courts can only preside over those crimes set forth in the Constitution of the United States or contained within the body of written federal laws, such as the United States Code. Federal criminal law is not unique however, and most often for every federal crime there is a similar if not identical state crime. The criminal law procedures employed within the federal court system is also not unique and is often very similar if not identical to the procedures employed in the state court criminal law system. Nevertheless, it is very important for a person accused of a federal crime in the State of Michigan to find and retain a federal criminal defense lawyer, preferably one with years of experience defending criminal cases in Michigan's Eastern and Western Districts.

The Difference Between a State and Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer

The main requirement to become a federal criminal defense lawyer is admission to a state bar. In the case of a federal criminal defense lawyer in Michigan, who will be practicing before the United States Eastern and Western District Courts, they must first be a member of the Michigan Bar. At a minimum, this requires successful attendance at and graduation from an accredited law school followed by passing the Michigan Bar Exam. Once both have occurred, the lawyer-candidate must be sworn in by a court.

The swear-in is a ceremony at which the lawyer-candidate takes an oath to support the Constitutions of the United States and Michigan, and to act with the highest legal and ethical standards in their practice of law before the state courts. However, admission to State Bar of Michigan is not sufficient to practice before the federal district courts.

Before practicing in the Eastern District Court, a lawyer must be "admitted to the Bar of the Eastern District of Michigan." This requires the lawyer-candidate to register online with a Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) account, and submit a variety of documents, including a certificate of good standing issued from a "court of record" as identified by the application for admission. Another important document that must be submitted is a "declaration of sponsor." This is essentially a form whereby another lawyer previously admitted to the Federal Bar vouches for the lawyer-candidate and indicates that lawyer believes the candidate to have sufficient knowledge and standing to be admitted to the Federal Bar.

If the lawyer-candidate is approved for admission to the Federal Bar for the Eastern District Court in Michigan, the next and final step is to take the oath of office. This requirement, set forth in Local Court Rule 83.20 (a)(4), requires applicants who are granted admission to practice taking the oath of office. This oath is like the State Bar lawyer's oath.

The steps for admission to practice in the Western District Court in Michigan are very similar to those above for the Eastern District. After the necessary documents have been prepared and signed by the lawyer-candidate, and approved by court administrators, the full application will be submitted to the Chief Judge for Michigan's Western District Court for review and approval. If the lawyer-candidate's application is approved, the lawyer-candidate will be added to the list of attorneys admitted to practice before the Western District Court.

Once approved for admission and added to the list of attorneys admitted to practice before Michigan's Eastern or Western District Courts, the lawyer is able to represent citizens accused for federal criminal crimes in these courts. However, to do so competently, and to therefore live up to both the State and Federal Oaths of Office, this lawyer must know all the current rules, including the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (to the extent they apply), the Federal Rules of Evidence, any applicable and relevant local court rules, and of course, the federal criminal laws.

The Federal District Courts of Michigan

The entire U.S. federal criminal court system is comprised of 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts and only one Supreme Court. Of the 94 district courts, there is at least one per state, plus courts in and whose jurisdiction covers the territory within the Districts of Columbia and Puerto Rico and the territories of the Virgin Islands, Guam, and Northern Mariana Islands.

The term jurisdiction described above also embraces the concept of venue. For a district court to have jurisdiction over a case, that criminal case must have originated within the territory covered by the District Court. This usually means the alleged criminal activity must have arisen within that territory. For example, if you are accused of a federal crime that was committed in Oakland County, Michigan, then your criminal case will be heard in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Michigan has two federal District courts. These are the U.S. District Courts for the Eastern and Western Districts of Michigan. Together, these two courts cover the entire State of Michigan. The main courts are in the City of Detroit for the Eastern District and the City of Grand Rapids for the Western District. This is one of the reasons the Barone Defense Firm maintains offices in both Birmingham, Michigan and Grand Rapids, Michigan, because these locations allow us to easily appear in both the Eastern and Western District Courts.

This does not mean that your federal criminal case will be heard in either Detroit or Grand Rapids. Both the Eastern and Western District Courts in Michigan maintain buildings elsewhere, and this is partly for the convenience of the litigants. So, for example, the Federal Eastern District Court has courthouses located in Ann Arbor, Flint, Port Huron, and Bay City in addition to Detroit. The Western District Court has courthouses located in Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Marquette in addition to Grand Rapids.

Marquette is located at approximately the center-point of Michigan's upper peninsula and is roughly an 8-hour drive from Detroit or Grand Rapids. This long drive is an impediment for most federal criminal defense lawyers in those cities. This is one of the reasons the Barone Defense Firm has an of-counsel relationship with federal criminal defense attorney, Karl Numinen, who has an office in Marquette, Michigan. This allows the Barone Defense Firm to handle federal criminal cases anywhere in the State of Michigan.

Responsibilities and Appointments of Federal District Court Judges and Magistrates

Like all judges in the federal court system, district court judges presiding over criminal law matters are appointed by the President of the United States. After being confirmed in the Senate, judges serve life terms. There are more than 670 district court judge serving throughout all 94 district courts in the United States. Only a small fraction of this 670 serve in Michigan's Eastern and Western District Courts.

Magistrates are essentially judicial assistants. They are appointed by the district courts by a majority vote of the district court judges assigned to that district. They are often called "magistrate judge" rather than simply "magistrate" because they have a great deal of power and authority to act. How much involvement any one magistrate judge will have is dependent on the judge they serve. Some of the Federal District Court Judges in Michigan's Eastern and Western Districts use their magistrate judges for almost everything while others rarely utilize their magistrate judges. More generally speaking, a U.S. magistrate judge may exercise jurisdiction in a criminal case over those matters assigned to them by statute as well as those delegated by the district judges.

Magistrate judges perform a variety of tasks including issuing warrants, setting the cash bond amount and bond conditions. In Michigan's Eastern and Western District Courts, magistrate judges will handle most pre-trial matters as well. This often includes presiding over your initial appearance and the arraignment on the charges. The magistrate judge will also preside over the taking of a plea of guilty or not guilty and will determine whether you will be detained or released on bond pending trial.

Relevant Agencies Outside or Within the Federal District Criminal Courts

Due to the vast amount of work assigned to the various federal courts, the judges must rely on outside agencies and bodies to help complete all the necessary work. Department of Justice attorneys, including federal prosecutors, are both "officers of the court" and members of the executive branch of government. This department led by the Attorney General and federal prosecutors are therefore called Assistant United States Attorneys because they assist the appointed Attorney General.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Federal Criminal Court System

With that introduction, we will now address the following questions:

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