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What to Expect at the Initial Appearance in Federal Criminal Cases

| Jess Johnson |


The initial appearance in federal criminal court is the first time that someone charged with a federal crime goes before a judge. What happens at initial appearance is governed by Rule 5 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

What should I expect at the initial appearance?

The initial appearance happens quickly after you are arrested on federal charges or turn yourself into the U.S. Marshals. Normally, the initial appearance will take place within a couple of days. During the hearing, the Court will first advise you of a number of things, including:

  • The charges that have been filed against you;
  • Any statutory minimums or maximums that may apply to the charges;
  • That you have the right to retain a lawyer or have one appointed if you cannot afford one;
  • That you have the right to remain silent and that anything you say can be used against you in court;
  • Whether you have the right to a preliminary hearing; and,
  • Whether you can seek pretrial release.

The Court will also ask the Government if it has or intends to move for detention. In some cases, the Government may file a motion seeking to detain you and hold you without bond until the trial. If the Government does move detention, the Court will likely schedule a detention hearing a few days out. The purpose of a detention hearing is to determine if you should be released on bond. If the Government does not move for detention, the Court will likely set a bond in your case that is either an unsecured bond (meaning that you don’t have to put up any money) or a secured bond which requires you to put up money or property.

How will I know if the Government will move for detention?

Federal law allows the Government to move for detention in two situations: 1) when certain charges are brought, and 2) when the Government believes that you are a serious risk of flight or a serious risk of obstructing justice or threatening witnesses.

The type of offenses which usually cause the Government to move for detention include a crime of violence, an offense which has a maximum sentence of life or death, a drug offense which has a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more, and in cases where the person have been convicted of two or more offenses which would fall under the three previous categories.

If the Government thinks that you might flee or somehow obstruct justice, the Government will often seek detention where someone has ties to other countries, has few ties to the community where the allegations occurred, has a criminal history, has failed to appear for court in the past, has access to a large amount of liquid assets, or has alleged ties to a larger criminal organization.

Hiring a defense lawyer for the initial appearance

Hiring an experienced federal criminal defense attorney before an initial appearance can make a significant difference in how the case is handled. If hired earlier enough during the criminal investigation, a defense lawyer can often arrange to have his client self-surrender (instead of being arrested at your home, workplace, during a traffic stop, or at the airport). A defense lawyer can also talk to the prosecutor assigned to the case to convince them that they should not move for detention. If the Government refuses, your defense lawyer can begin to prepare for the detention hearing by gathering evidence and witnesses to convince the court that you should be released on bond.

If you or someone you know is facing federal criminal charges, give Johnson/Citronberg a call at (703) 684-8000. Our federal criminal attorneys represent clients charged with serious federal offenses across the country. The initial consultation is always confidential and free.