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What Are the Steps in a Federal Criminal Case and How are These Different from State Crimes?
If you have been charged with a federal crime, you may be wondering "how did I get here" and "what happens next?" The federal criminal law system can be bewildering and intimidating. The pressure of having the full force and authority of the Federal Government bearing down on you can seem like too much to bear. It is natural to feel afraid and anxious and much of this fear arises out of the fear of the unknown. Consequently, we believe it will be helpful for you to understand the language used and to understand a little bit about the difference between criminal cases that are handled in the state criminal law system compared to the federal criminal law system.
For this series of articles and the following discussions, we are going to focus on felonies rather than misdemeanors or civil infractions. Felonies are more serious crimes and are usually defined based on the penalty that can be imposed. Generally, if the crime is punishable by a year or less in jail, then it is considered a misdemeanor.
Felonies in the state court system are often initially investigated by police officers who are sometimes called "beat cops," meaning police officers who are patrolling our streets. In fact, the term "cop" stands for "constable on patrol." For state criminal cases, this would include a crime like drunk driving third offense, which begins with a traffic stop initiated by a beat cop. For many state crimes, other investigators, such as police detectives, are not involved.
For more serious offenses, such as criminal sexual conduct (rape), cases involving other kinds of assault and bodily injury like first degree murder, or with serious financial crimes, the investigation might still begin with a patrol officer who takes the initial report from the victim or who encounters the deceased after a 911 call. After their preliminary investigation, these first responders will turn the investigation over to others, like a police detective, forensic examiner, ballistics or blood splatter experts, and the like.
If, at the conclusion of the investigation, the officers and investigators collectively believe that there is enough evidence to support their belief that a crime was committed, the case will be submitted to a prosecuting attorney. This prosecutor may be seeing the case for the first time or may have assisted in the investigation. The prosecutor will review the case information and if appropriate, and supported by sufficient evidence, will prepare a complaint and warrant.
The next step is for the warrant to be sworn to before a state district court magistrate or judge. This sets in motion the balance of the criminal procedure appliable in the state court, including the bind over to the circuit court. Only a circuit court judge in Michigan can preside over the sentencing of a felony case. In Michigan, the court of primary jurisdiction is the circuit court. This is one reason the terminology of the federal court system can be confusing, because the courts have similar names but different powers.
For example, the court of primary jurisdiction and the only court involved in a federal criminal case (barring an appeal) is the district court. There is therefore no "bind over" in the Federal criminal law system. The prosecuting attorney at the federal district court will have a different title as well. Rather than simply "prosecutor," at the federal level the government lawyer is called an Assistant United States Attorney ("AUSA").
Another big difference is that at the federal level, there are magistrate judges who can handle almost all aspects of the criminal case provided the parties agree. Magistrates in the Michigan district courts have very limited power and cannot perform most of the tasks routinely performed by a federal magistrate judge.
While most criminal cases at the state level in Michigan begin with an officer or detective swearing to the warrant, grand juries are sometimes used as well, but this is far rarer in the state system. By comparison, in the federal system, the use of grand juries is routine. This is because grand jury review of the evidence is a requirement in federal felony cases. The only exception is where the defendant waives the grand jury indictment (more on this later).
The purpose of the swear-to is to confirm and establish that the allegations of the criminal case are supported by a minimal showing of probable cause. This is a very low standard of proof, and is all that is required to begin a criminal case at both the state and federal level. The only time the much higher "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard applies is when the case is presented to a jury at trial.