Introduction To Federal Felonies

A federal felony charge is no joke – once a crime becomes a felony the likelihood of escaping without doing serious jail time becomes much less unlikely. If you or a loved one have been, or think you may be charged with a federal felony, you need to be as knowledgeable as possible so you can move forward to fight the charges properly. This article outlines everything you need to know about federal felony charges. 

Federal Charges vs State Charges: What’s the Difference? 

Federal charges are charges for crimes that are have broken a law on the federal level. In other words, there are certain laws the United States Congress has defined that help keeps US citizens safe. There are some crimes that must be prosecuted in the Federal District Court because it is automatically in their jurisdiction. 

Other crimes are offenses under both federal and state law, so it’s up to the state to decide whether or not they wish to pursue prosecution in the Federal District Court or the State Court. 

State charges are those that have violated state law and will be heard in the State Court. These charges typically come with a lesser sentence than federal charges, due to the severity of the crime. 

What Does Federal Criminal Prosecution Look Like? 

If someone is charged with a federal crime, these are the steps their case will typically take: 

  1. Arrest – the alleged offender will be arrested, or a warrant will be issued for their arrest. The warrant for arrest will be based on a Complaint or an Indictment. 
  2. Initial Court Appearance – As soon as possible after the arrest, the alleged offender will have an Initial Appearance with a Magistrate Judge. They will advise the accused of their rights, and find out if they will have an attorney or be appointed a public defender. A federal prosecutor (known as the Assistant United States Attorney) may ask for the alleged offender to be detained. 
  3. Detention Hearing – if the alleged offender is detained, a Detention Hearing must be heard within three working days to decide whether or not there is evidence that the accused is a danger to the community or likely to flee. They may be released pending trial or detained until trial. 
  4. Preliminary Hearing – If arrested on a Complaint, the alleged offender has the right to a Preliminary Hearing within 10 days, in which probable cause will be established and it will be decided if the case should go to a grand jury. (If arrested on Indictment, this isn’t necessary.) 
  5. Grand Jury – The final decision to prosecute a federal case is up to a grand jury of randomly selected citizens within that jurisdiction. 
  6. Indictment Sought – the Assistant US Attorneys appear before the jury to establish probable cause. 
  7. Indictment Returned – if the grand jury believes the evidence presented does establish probable cause, it issues an indictment against the accused. If it doesn’t, a No Bill is returned. 
  8. Arraignment – within 10 days of Indictment an Arraignment must take place before a Magistrate Judge. The defendant is read their charges and advised of their rights. They enter their plea (guilty or not guilty). 
  9. Plea Agreement – if pleaded not guilty, a trial takes place until a Plea Agreement is reached between the Assistant US Attorney and the defense attorney. 
  10. Trial – The trial proper takes place before a jury and Federal District Court Judge. Now the Assistant US Attorney and defense attorneys present their evidence. The jury must unanimously agree on the verdict. If found not guilty, they are released. If found guilty, they go on to pre-sentencing. There may be an option to have the case heard without a jury present. 
  11. Pre-Sentencing – If pleaded guilty or convicted, the evidence is presented with a recommendation for the sentence to a Federal District Court Judge. 
  12. Sentencing – Eight weeks after the entry of the plea or finding guilty at trial, the Federal District Court Judge imposes the sentence. 
  13. Appeal – the defendant may decide to appeal the results of the trial. 

What are the Different Types of Felony Charges? 

There are 5 different types of felony charge each with a recommended sentence. What crimes constitute a felony and what punishment each felony can earn differs from state to state, but generally: 

  • Class A Felony – Most serious felony with a possibility of a life sentence or death (murder, terrorism, bank robbery) 
  • Class B Felony – Slightly less serious than Class A with a sentence of 25 years or more (like manslaughter, sexual assault, distribution of narcotics) 
  • Class C Felony – 10 – 25 years in prison (involuntary manslaughter, domestic assault, endangering a child) 
  • Class D Felony – 5 – 10 years in prison (false documentation required to vote, unlawful abortion, driving while license is revoked) 
  • Class E Felony – Less than 5 years in prison (DWI, unlawful practice of law, attempted crimes) 

Anything below 1 year in prison will be a misdemeanor. 

What are the Most Common Types of Federal Crimes? 

The top 5 most common federal crimes are: 

  • Drug-Related Felonies – there are more than 2,000,000 felony drug violations annually. This includes possession, trafficking, and selling charges. 
  • Theft Crimes – theft, larceny, burglary, auto theft, armed robbery. 
  • Violent Crimes – there are more than 1,000,000 felony cases of assault annually, including sexual assault, but not including manslaughter, murder, domestic and child abuse.
  • Fraud – this includes writing counterfeit checks, money laundering, corporate fraud, and more. 
  • Weapons Violations – unlawful possession of a weapon is often a felony charge. 

Other Federal Crimes 

  • Violence 
    • Abusive Sexual Contact 
    • Assault/Battery 
    • Armed Robbery 
    • Assault with a Deadly Weapon
    • Murder  
    • Manslaughter 
    • Attempted Murder/Manslaughter 
    • Terrorism 
    • Unlawful Possession of Bombs and Explosives 
    • Child/Elder Abuse and Child Pornography 
  • Theft and Vandalism 
    • Armed Robbery 
    • Arson 
  • Crimes Against the Government 
    • Advocating to Overthrow the Government 
    • Escaping from Prison 
    • Bank Burglary/Robbery/Larceny 
    • Breaking into Federal Buildings 
  • Falsifying Documents & Theft 
    • Identity Theft 
    • Falsification of Official Identifying Documents 
  • Endangering Others 
    • Airplane Hijacking 
    • Aiming Laser Pointer at Aircraft 
    • Kidnapping 
    • Harassment of Victims or Witnesses 
  • Monetary Crimes 
    • Racketeering 
    • Bankruptcy Fraud 
    • Embezzlement 
    • Tax Fraud 
    • Blackmail/Bribery 
    • Price Fixing 
    • Cyber Crimes 

View a complete list here.

What to Do If Charged with a Federal Crime 

If you’ve been charged with a federal crime, it’s important you get an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer on your case as soon as possible. If you are looking for a criminal defense lawyer in St. Louis, Missouri, or the surrounding areas, we’re here to help. To find out more about how we can help you as soon as possible, contact us here.

About Chris Combs

A St. Louis native and graduate of Saint Louis University Law School, Chris Combs has been recognized as one of St. Louis' top criminal defense and personal injury attorneys. He is passionate about getting positive results for all his clients and values personal communication above all.

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