The U.S. judicial system is anything but simple. You can be charged with a crime by the state government, the federal government, or both.

While the legal process may differ from case to case, your rights remain the same. To understand how the trial system works for U.S. citizens, it’s helpful to start with the basics of American law: the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The amendments connected to the criminal justice system are as follows:

  • Amendment IV protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • Amendment V protects you from being held without being charged, from double jeopardy, and from being a witness against yourself.
  • Amendment VI gives you the right to a speedy and public trial with an impartial jury, to know what you are being accused of, and to confront accusing witnesses.
  • Amendment VIII protects you from excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishments.

Unfortunately, miscarriages of justice can happen. That’s why, if you are facing criminal charges, you should hire an experienced defense attorney to ensure your rights are protected throughout the entire legal process.

Federal court steps

The federal criminal justice system includes several important steps, although individual cases may vary, according to the U.S. Department of Justice:

  1. Investigation
  2. Charging
  3. Initial hearing or arraignment
  4. Discovery
  5. Plea bargaining
  6. Preliminary hearing
  7. Pre-trial motions
  8. Trial
  9. Post-trial motions
  10. Sentencing
  11. Appeal

You may end up skipping steps if, for example, you come to an agreement in the plea bargaining stage. The process may be slightly different in state courts or even between federal cases, something an attorney can help navigate.

State vs. federal courts

Most crimes are prosecuted through the state court system. City, state, or district attorneys will charge you in local or state courts. Penalties tend to be less severe than in federal cases.

Federal crimes include those involving banking institutions, identity theft, wire fraud, gun charges, money laundering, computer crimes, arson, investment fraud, attempts to defraud the federal government (such as tax fraud or Medicare and Medicaid fraud), or crimes that cross state lines, according to local law firm LaHood Norton.

A U.S. attorney or assistant U.S. attorney will charge you in district courts. The penalties are more severe than in state cases because judges follow federal sentencing guidelines.

There are times when you may appear in both a state and federal court for the same allegations. This is an exception to the double jeopardy rule because double jeopardy means you cannot be retried for the same crime against the same “sovereign.” Because state and federal governments are different “sovereigns,” it is possible to face separate charges for the same allegation.

Your case

More than 90% of both state and federal cases end in a plea bargain rather than a trial, according to legal website Nolo, but the specifics of your case will help you determine your path.

If you’ve been arrested or charged with a crime, the experienced attorneys at LaHood Norton can guide you through the legal process and ensure your rights are protected.

“Offering aggressive and results-driven criminal defense representation in San Antonio, we help the accused navigate the path forward,” according to LaHood Norton. “We defend clients against both federal and state offenses. With more than 80 years of combined experience, our attorneys can be trusted with your case no matter how serious your charges may be.”


For more information and to schedule a free consultation, visit