Federal Court Procedures

Federal Court Procedures

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Boston, MA Federal Court Procedures and Timeline

Going to Federal Court involves many of the same procedural steps as Massachusetts state (district and superior) courts. In Boston’s U.S. District Court, the timeline of your case can vary depending on the nature of the charges, the evidence, and the people involved. However, as a general guide, here is what you can expect when you’re facing charges in U.S. District Court in Boston, Massachusetts:

Complaint and Arrest Warrant

A federal agency, such as the FBI or DEA obtains an arrest warrant. The warrant allows agents to take you into custody. It is based on an affidavit, indictment, and/or a complaint. The affidavit lays out the alleged criminal activity that you are accused of committing.

Initial Appearance

Shortly after your arrest, you will be granted an initial appearance in front of a Magistrate Judge. At your first appearance, the Magistrate Judge will advise you of your rights, and will determine whether you can be released on bail.

Detention Hearing

The prosecutor, an Assistant United States Attorney, may ask the judge to order you to be detained prior trial. The prosecutor might try to persuade the judge that you are a flight risk or a danger to the community. If the judge agrees to detain you at your initial appearance, a detention hearing must be held within three working days. You can ask for up to five days to prepare for the hearing.

Your attorney will have an opportunity to argue that you should be released, as you are neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community. A Magistrate Judge will decide whether there are any conditions that would assure your return to court. Sometimes in federal court, the Magistrate Judge will allow a defendant’s release on an “unsecured” bond. This does not require the posting of any money. If you are released, there are often conditions by which you must abide in order to remain free.


Within 10 days (if you’re in custody – otherwise 20 days) of your initial appearance, you have a right to a preliminary hearing. The Assistant U.S. Attorney will offer testimony regarding your alleged criminal activities. The final decision to prosecute a federal criminal case belongs to the grand jury. Comprised of 23 randomly selected people in your district, the grand jury has the power to decide whether to indict you.

An indictment is a formal document that contains the federal charges against you. The grand jury reviews the allegations, and if they decide that there is enough evidence they will return the indictment – and issue a “true bill.” At least 12 grand jurors must vote to indict. Otherwise, the grand jury returns a “no bill.”

If you are indicted, the judge will select your trial date and set a schedule for pre-trial motions. The Federal Speedy Trial Act gives you the right to a trial within 70 days of your initial Federal Court appearance. However, this is often pushed back for a number of reasons.

Pretrial Motions

During the pretrial stage, your attorney can file motions to the court. There are a number of different motions that can be filed, including motions to dismiss the charges or to suppress evidence against you. If a motion to suppress is granted, certain evidence against you is “suppressed” – or kept out of your trial. This can be a huge win, by severely damaging the government’s case against you.

Plea Agreement

The majority of federal criminal cases result in plea agreements. When faced with insurmountable evidence, you may decide to plead guilty rather than go to trial. In exchange for your plea, the prosecutor will generally offer a reduced sentence. For any plea agreement, the U.S. District Court Judge will have the final decision on whether to accept or reject its terms.


The decision of whether to proceed to trial or to take a plea agreement rests entirely with you. Of course, your attorney will go over the government’s case, your defense strategy, the likelihood of success, and potential consequences of a conviction. After you have a thorough understanding of that information, you will either accept a plea agreement or go to trial to fight the charges.

A trial is heard before a jury of your peers – twelve citizens selected from across the district. A U.S. District Judge, who will make decisions regarding rulings of law that come up throughout the proceedings, oversees the trial. You will not need to prove yourself innocent of the charges. Rather, the Assistant U.S. Attorney bears the burden of proving the elements of each offense – beyond a reasonable doubt. You will only be found guilty of all twelve jurors are unanimous in their decision. If you are found not guilty, you will be released.


If you plead guilty or are convicted, you will be interviewed by a probation officer. The probation officer will use information from the interview, as well as information submitted by your defense attorney, to draft a pre-sentencing report. The report, which is a sentencing recommendation, will be provided to your attorney, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, and the U.S. District Court Judge.

Prior to your sentencing hearing, your attorney and the Assistant U.S. Attorney will draft and submit sentencing memorandums to the court. Within about 75 days (if you’re in custody – otherwise 90 days), the U.S. District Court Judge will impose a sentence. At the hearing, you will have an opportunity to speak. Your attorney will consult with you regarding the benefits and pitfalls of addressing the judge. Your sentence may include one or more of the following: incarceration in federal prison, a term of supervised release (probation), a monetary fine, and/or restitution to be paid to the victim.


As long as you didn’t waive your right to appeal in a plea agreement, you can appeal both your conviction and the sentence imposed. In order to appeal, you must file a Notice of Appeal within 10 days of sentencing. Your appeal will be directed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. If you do not prevail at this stage, you can make one further appeal – to the Supreme Court.

Given the complexity of the process, and the enormous potential consequences of a conviction, you need a high quality Boston Criminal Defense Attorney on your side. If you’re facing federal criminal charges in Boston or anywhere in Massachusetts, call me today.

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