A Guide To Federal Criminal Court Process

Most criminal prosecutions happen at the state level. But certain activities can get federal agencies involved, or involve federal property. With so many military bases and national wildlife areas throughout Colorado, you may be closer to federal property, and the risk of federal charges than you think. It is a good idea to understand the federal criminal court process, including when it applies, and how federal sentencing works, before you are faced with a possible criminal conviction.

When Does the Federal Criminal Court Process Apply?

Unlike state-level criminal investigations, which are led by local police departments, federal crimes are investigated by federal agencies such as the FBI, IRS, DEA, DHS, EPA and others. They can also involve the violation of a federal law, involve interstate activity, or occur on federal property. Colorado has a number of military bases, national parks, national forests and reservations. Crimes that occur in these locations can also be investigated and charged as federal crimes, even if they would be handled by state police in other locations.

Common Federal Charges

When a crime happens on federal land, it can involve any violation of state or federal law. You can face federal charges for trespassing, for example, if done in the wrong place. However, other common federal charges involve specific statutes that apply nationwide, such as:

  • Drug trafficking (21 USC 841)
  • Human trafficking (8 USC 1324)
  • Child pornography (18 USC 2251)
  • Internet and mail fraud (18 USC 1030, 1341)
  • Securities fraud (18 USC 1348-49)
  • Counterfeiting and forgery (18 USC 21)
  • Money laundering (18 USC 1956)
  • Tax crimes (26 USC 7201)
  • Organized criminal activity (18 USC 1961)
  • Federal wildlife crimes (16 USC 3371 – 3378)

Federal Criminal Process vs Colorado State Criminal Process

The state and federal criminal processes are separate, but somewhat parallel proceedings. If you are charged with a state crime your case will be heard in county court. If you are charged with a felony, your case will then be sent to a district court for trial. You can appeal a criminal conviction to the Colorado Court of Appeals and ultimately the Colorado Supreme Court. In some cases, such as when there are constitutional issues in play, you can appeal a Colorado Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under the federal criminal process, your case will be heard in the federal district court closest to your county. Appeals of federal criminal convictions are taken to one of 13 regional circuit courts, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Steps in the Criminal Court Process

While the two criminal processes are similar, there are some differences along the way. Here are the major steps in the federal criminal process:


State charges often spring from an initial incident and arrest, but federal investigations can last much longer. The arrest happens at the end of that investigation, rather than the beginning.

Initial Court Appearance

This is similar to a preliminary hearing in state court, in that it is a hearing where the judge will decide if there is enough evidence against you to present reasonable cause for the case to move forward. However, unlike in state court, the prosecutor is not required to formally present the evidence.


In state court, you are arraigned prior to the preliminary hearing. At the arraignment the Court will read you the charges against you, give you an opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty, and set bail conditions. A federal arraignment is the same, it just happens one step later.

Pre-Trial Period

Once you have been arraigned, both your attorney and the prosecutor will be given time to investigate the case, exchange evidence and information (called discovery), and negotiate any plea deals. This is also when the court will hear any motions to compel discovery, suppress illegally obtained evidence, or even dismiss your case. Plea bargaining continues throughout this period. You can decide to take a plea at any pre-trial hearing.


If you choose not to enter a plea, the prosecutor must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by submitting admissible evidence to a jury. Your criminal defense attorney will then present your defense by cross-examining witnesses, presenting evidence, and putting forth witnesses of your own. You may also choose to testify on your own behalf.

Sentencing Hearing

After a conviction is entered, you will need to participate in a pre-sentence investigation. Based on the resulting report, the federal court judge will impose a sentence that considers the criminal charge involved and your criminal history (more on that later).


If the judge commits legal error in your case, or if the jury makes a mistake, you can appeal your conviction to a higher court. Success on appeal does not mean your conviction will automatically be set aside, but it can allow you to receive a fair result.

Federal Crimes: Sentencing

The penalty for a federal conviction is often much harsher than its state-law equivalent. The sentencing for these crimes is also stricter. Prosecutors may not have the flexibility to engage in extensive plea negotiations and judges have less flexibility in imposing sentences.

Every federal case that reaches sentencing applies the “Federal Sentencing Guidelines.” This is a table that ranks the severity of the offense (measured by “level”) and the defendant’s criminal history (sorted by “category”) to calculate the suggested sentence range for a particular case. For example, a person with little criminal history (category I) who is convicted of a level 8 federal offense might receive a sentencing guideline of 0 to 6 months in prison. Someone whose criminal history places them in category 5 could face a guideline of 15 to 21 months for the same offense.

Judges may deviate from the sentencing guidelines range, for good reason. There are some mandatory minimum sentences, but there are also things you and your criminal defense attorney can do to convince your judge to deviate in favor of a lower sentence.

Our Team of Skilled Attorneys Understand the Federal Criminal Court Process

At Aviso Law, LLC, our criminal defense attorney is experienced in both state and federal courts. We know what to expect from the federal criminal court process, and how best to defend against federal charges and advocate for a reasonable sentence if a conviction occurs. We are here to serve you and will see you through the federal criminal court process. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.

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