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From investigation to trial: The federal criminal justice process

Learning that a federal agency may be preparing to launch an investigation of your business or activities may be alarming.

The criminal justice system follows a process, though, and the FBI explains that you have rights at every stage that may protect you from unreasonably harsh consequences.


Which agencies or authorities conduct the investigation will depend on the nature of the alleged activity. Regardless, in most cases, law enforcement must have a search warrant from a judge or must obtain a subpoena from a grand jury before conducting a search of any location.

Initial hearing/arraignment

After law enforcement takes you into custody, you must appear before the judge within 72 hours. At this hearing, the judge notifies you of your charges and advises you of your right to an attorney and to remain silent. As long as you are not a danger to the community or a flight risk, you will probably not remain in custody throughout the coming trial.

Plea agreements

You may be able to avoid trial by accepting a plea bargain. This allows you to plead guilty to a lesser charge or fewer charges and avoid the possibility of a more serious conviction.

Discovery and motions

If your case is going to trial, the prosecution and defense request information from each other to build their cases during the discovery process. They may also file motions to suppress information or make other requests.


Opening statements, the presentation of evidence, witness testimony and closing statements comprise the bulk of the trial. If the judge or jury finds you guilty, you will receive a sentence, but first, a probation officer conducts a background investigation. This may result in aggravating or mitigating factors that affect your sentence. For example, if you have prior convictions, your sentence may be harsher, but if it is a first offense, you may receive a lighter sentence.


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