As citizens of the United States it is important that we have a working understanding of how the federal criminal system work. A good starting point for that understanding is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor. Each criminal statute generally has its own designation. What differentiates one class of crimes from the next is its punishment. In fact, the sentencing statute, 18 U.S.C. §3559(a), indicates that any offense that does not have a classification is classified by the maximum term of incarceration.
- Class A felonies require life imprisonment or death penalty;
- Class B felonies permit 25 years or more
- Class C felonies permit between 10 and 25 years;
- Class D felonies permit between five and ten years;
- Class E felonies permit between one and five years;
- Class A misdemeanors permit between six months and one year;
- Class B misdemeanors permit between 30 days and six months;
- Class C misdemeanors permit between five days and 30 days; and
- Infractions permit between no imprisonment and up to five days.
Stages of a Criminal Case
A federal criminal case begins with a grand jury investigation. A grand jury is convened to determine if there is evidence that a crime has been committed and if the defendant(s) committed the crime. The standard is exceedingly low; a grand jury can indict if the United States Attorney made a prima facie case, which means that there is at least some minimal amount of evidence to satisfy each element of the crime in issue. Criminal defendants do not have standing to cross examine witnesses or present witnesses to a grand jury.
The indictment is the charging document. Next, the criminal defendant must enter a plea to the charges. The plea must be guilty, not guilty or no contest. Failure to enter a plea is treated as a not guilty. Some states allow more “exotic” varieties, such as an Alford plea. This is not allowed in federal court. The entry of a no contest plea is of critical importance, as it may prevent the state or other parties from using the conviction in subsequent civil proceedings. Moreover, no contest pleas generally must be consented to by the prosecutor before the court will accept it. Following a guilty or no contest plea, the court must personally query the defendant, to determine if he or she understands the full gamut of rights he or she is waiving.
Next is the pre-trial investigation and discovery stage. The defendant is entitled to discovery, which generally includes all evidence that the government intends to introduce at trial, any exculpatory evidence and any other statements, documents, expert reports or lab reports that are of value. It is at this time that defense counsel will file pre-trial motions.
The defendant has a right to a jury trial. There are, however, many valid reasons why a defendant would chose to not have a jury and opt for a bench trial instead. Once the jury is empaneled and sworn in, jeopardy attaches, for purpose of double jeopardy. If the defendant opts for a bench trial, jeopardy attaches when evidence is admitted.
At a certain point, trial will conclude. If a not guilty verdict is entered, the right of the government to appeal is limited due to the double jeopardy prohibition. If the trial ends with a hung jury or a finding of a mistrial, the government must determine if it is going to retry the case. If the defendant is found guilty, the court will sentence in several months time, following the creation of a pre-sentence investigation report.
Let Us Help You in Criminal Court
If you or a loved one is facing federal criminal charges, you need an aggressive, experienced lawyer. Attorney William Mayer has the experience and wisdom to help you through such a case. We will aggressively advocate on your behalf throughout each step of the process in order to protect your rights. Contact us today.