Federal criminal defense varies significantly from the more well-known State criminal defense. The United States Government, and the associated United States Attorney’s Office, is the prosecuting authority in federal court. The U.S.Attorney’s Office receives their directives from the Attorney General and is not affiliated with nor works in conjunction with the State prosecutors’ office. However, the State prosecutors’ office may decline to prosecute a crime, if the Federal government is seeking to prosecute, or vice versa.
When in federal criminal court, plea bargaining or pleading to lesser charges is less likely and only on rare occasions does a matter proceed to trial. One of the main reasons for this lack of bargaining is a result of the significant resources to research, investigate and pursue leads that are held by the United States. Because there is a smaller threat or fear of a not guilty verdict at the time of trial, and the associated loss of “Acceptance of Responsibility” that attaches when proceeding to trial, most defendants find it wise to either plead to the charge or seek a plea agreement.
Further, as a result of this intense and ongoing style of investigation, the defendant’s attorney is provided hundreds of pages of paper discovery, audio and video of the offense, and statements made by co-conspirators and other individuals, including police officers, that occur during a phase that is called Grand Jury. The Grand Jury is responsible for returning and Indictment. The Indictment is the formal charging instrument in federal criminal court.
The Grand Jury is a group of 16-24 individuals that hear the evidence and testimony regarding alleged criminal acts. The Grand Jury is to then decide whether there is “probable cause” to believe a violation of federal law has occurred. During a Grand Jury session, many people from the community and police officers may be called to testify. A person called to testify cannot decline to answer questions about others, but may decline to answer questions that incriminate themselves; this is called exercising ones Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This right does not protect family, friends, co-workers or the like, but ONLY protects the person testifying from being compelled to make statements against their own interests.
The United States Code, much like Iowa Code, sets forth the crimes that can and will be prosecuted in federal court. The United States Code will provide the “elements” that are necessary for a conviction and also establishes the minimum and maximum penalties for each specific crime. The United States Code is broken down in to “Titles”. Each Title or section relates to a series of like situated crimes. Most often discussed are Title 21 violations, these crimes revolve around drugs of all varieties. Title 8 violations deal with immigration crimes. It is important to note that the United States Code, as the Iowa Code does, includes topics and laws that do not pertain to criminal matters, but also civil matters as well.