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Federal Court Process

The federal criminal court process in Texas is significantly different than the system you would experience if you were charged with a Texas crime. When you are investigated for potentially committing a federal crime, there are additional steps prosecutors must take in order to formally indict you and take you to trial. Prosecutors must prove in a preliminary hearing in front of a judge that there is probable cause you committed the crime or they must demonstrate the existence of probable cause to a grand jury who decides to indict you. While the path through the state court process is relatively straight forward, the journey through the federal court process varies depending on how the assistant U.S. attorney handles the case.

If you know law enforcement is investigating you for a federal crime, contact Houston criminal defense lawyer Ned Barnett at (713) 222-6767 right away. Barnett has more than 30 years of experience as a Houston attorney, including as a federal prosecutor. He can explain your options and the process you may encounter.

An Arrest

You may be arrested before the assistant U.S. attorney presents evidence to a grand jury. If you are arrested, a grand jury may be held within a week or put on hold while a prosecutor investigates the situation more or contemplates a plea bargain. If the prosecutor does not go to a grand jury immediately, you may be able to secure your release from jail.

However, you do not have to be arrested prior to prosecutors bringing federal charges against you. If law enforcement and prosecutors have investigated you and believe you have committed one or more federal crimes, the assistant U.S. attorney can file a complaint, leading to a preliminary hearing, or call a grand jury. If the grand jury indicts you, law enforcement will obtain an arrest warrant.

Do not wait for an indictment or arrest to contact a Houston criminal defense attorney. If you are aware that law enforcement or a federal agency is investigating you, contact Ned Barnett immediately. As your lawyer, Barnett can protect your rights during an investigation.

A Grand Jury

Unlike a regular trial jury, a grand jury does not determine whether you are guilty or innocent. A grand jury consists of 16 to 23 people who review alleged felony criminal conduct and determine whether there is probable cause to support bringing criminal charges against you. It is an entirely secret proceeding and never open to the public.

Prosecutors present evidence of your alleged offenses to a grand jury. This can include photos, video, audio recordings, records and other documents as well as witness testimony. While prosecutors have a duty to present evidence that may demonstrate your innocence, grand juries are one-sided. Your attorney is not present and cannot question the witnesses or present evidence to rebut the allegations. You are allowed, though not required, to testify before a grand jury. Only the prosecutor questions you. However, the members of the grand jury can present questions to the prosecutor to ask you and other witnesses.

Once the prosecution has presented all of the evidence against you, which can take days or weeks, then a prosecutor will read legal instructions to the jurors and give them time to deliberate and vote. A grand jury of 23 only needs 12 jurors to agree to indict you. It does not have to be a unanimous decision.

A Preliminary Hearing

Assistant U.S. attorneys do not always use a grand jury first to bring charges against you, though this method is preferred. Prosecutors can file a complaint and hold a preliminary hearing in front of a judge. This is often used to charge you with a misdemeanor crime. They may also use this method if you have waived the grand jury process and have agreed to a plea bargain.

If the prosecution files a complaint and you are arrested, a preliminary hearing must happen within 10 days of your arrest. However, if the prosecutor goes to a grand jury first and the jurors indict you, then a preliminary hearing is not necessary.

During this hearing, both the assistant U.S. attorney and defense may present evidence to a judge. If the judge determines there is probable cause that you committed the crime, proceedings against you move forward. If you are being charged with a felony and have not waived your right to a grand jury, the prosecutor is constitutionally required to get an indictment from a grand jury next. Prosecutors do not need a grand jury indictment for a federal misdemeanor.

Initial Appearance in Court

After you are arrested, whether this is before or after a grand jury indictment, you will make an initial appearance in court. During this appearance, a magistrate judge will inform you of the charges against you and the conditions for your release, including the option for a bond. Your attorney should be present at this hearing because the assistant U.S. attorney can ask that you be detained. By having an experienced lawyer, you are more likely to secure your release.


Once you have been indicted for a federal crime, your arraignment must take place within 10 days. Now you are officially a defendant and the magistrate judge will read the crimes against you. You will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If you have been arrested and are currently held in jail, the judge may also set the conditions for your release.

A Houston Federal Criminal Lawyer Can Help

Once you have been indicted and arraigned for a federal crime, your attorney will prepare for trial or possibly negotiate a plea agreement. Preparing for trial includes investigating your situation, deposing potential witnesses, and filing pre-trial motions. Barnett has years of experience as both a federal prosecutor and a federal attorney. He can handle any federal offense you are facing.

Call the Law Offices of Ned Barnett at (713) 222-6767 to schedule a free consultation.