If you have been through the state court system you will notice there are many differences between that system and the federal system.  Below are some of those differences.  Your lawyer should be your first source for information about any questions you have.


There is no money bail for pretrial release in federal court.  If the federal court decides you can be released pending trial, the court may impose various restrictions on your freedom – these are called pretrial release conditions – but the court will not require you to post money to be released.  Some of these conditions are that you be required to remain at home, that you be required to be monitored with a GPS monitoring device, that you be precluded from frequenting certain locations, that you not be in the presence of children, that you not consume alcoholic beverages or that you not consume alcoholic beverages to excess.  The list of conditions the court can place on your release is virtually endless.  Failure to comply with the court’s pretrial release order may result in your pretrial release being revoked.

Courtrooms and Judges

Though your initial proceedings will likely be heard by a magistrate judge in magistrate court, most substantive motions hearings and your trial or plea hearing and sentencing will be heard by a district court judge.  District court judges are appointed by the President serving at the time of the judge’s appointment.  District courts are large and ornate.  They can feel imposing.  Take a deep breath and try to be calm.  Your lawyer works in these courts regularly and knows what to expect.  Ask questions if you are nervous or confused.


Discovery (the information, evidence and list of witnesses the government has collected to prosecute you) is much more restricted in federal court than it is in state court.  Depositions are not permitted in federal court like they are in state court.

Pretrial incarceration

If you are incarcerated prior to trial there are a number of facilities where you may be held.  You will likely not be held in the area where you were arrested.  Federal detainees are housed in Indianapolis but also in Kentucky, in Knox County, and in Hamilton County, to name a few.

Visitation with your lawyer

Because you are not held in the area where you were arrested you will likely see your lawyer in person less frequently than you may be accustomed to in state court proceedings.  Your lawyer may communicate with you more frequently via phone or video conferencing.  You also may sometimes be transported to Indianapolis to meet with your lawyer in the United States Marshal’s lockup in the federal courthouse.


Unlike state court, the federal courts do not schedule hearings just for the purpose of status updates.  Rather, the federal court will schedule a hearing only if it is necessary to address some development in the case.  This means you will have far fewer hearings than you may be accustomed to in state court.  Just because you are not in court does not mean your lawyer is not working on your case.  When a hearing is scheduled, your case will be the only one on the court’s calendar.  This means that you absolutely must be on time! You and your case will have the full attention of the judge and their staff.


Sentencing in federal court is very different than in state court.  The court is required to properly compute your federal sentencing guidelines.  These guidelines are a guide for the court in determining the appropriate sentence.  Though they are not binding on the federal judge, they are important and will give you some sense of the amount of time you are likely to receive.  Your lawyer is the best source for information about your guideline calculation and what you might expect from the judge.  However, you must keep in mind that no one knows what any judge is going to do with 100% accuracy.