What to Expect During a Federal Detention Hearing

According to the Pew Research Center, only about two percent of federal criminal cases go to trial while ninety percent of defendants plead guilty before a trial ever occurs. If you have found yourself or your loved one in one of these two categories, here’s what you can expect at the detention hearing.

What to Expect

First, you may be wondering what it means that you or someone you know is required to attend a federal detention hearing. Detention hearings are usually scheduled when the detainee is believed to be a flight risk or perceived as dangerous to the community. The prosecutor may also request a detention hearing for any of the following reasons, though this list is not exhaustive:

  1. the crime committed by the detainee is a violent one,
  2. the crime committed warrants a maximum sentence of life in prison or the death penalty, or
  3. the detainee has committed an offense with a maximum sentence of ten or more years under the Controlled Substances Act.

The detention hearing will typically take place immediately after the arrest, though in certain circumstances, the prosecution or defense attorney can request a delay of up to three and five days, respectively. When there is a delay, the detainee remains in custody until the hearing.

The hearing itself will appear similar to what you’ve likely seen on TV: The prosecution will have a chance to call witnesses and introduce evidence, and the defense attorney will be able to cross-examine those witnesses and even introduce evidence and witnesses of their own on behalf of the detainee. However, federal detention hearings are usually less formal than trials. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of a detention hearing is the defense attorney advocating for the conditions of the detainee’s release. At the hearing, the defense attorney's primary goal is to fight for the detainee’s release and make a case for why they would not pose a threat to the community if released from custody.

Shortly after the detention hearing has concluded, you can expect to find out whether the detainee will continue to be kept in custody or released. The federal magistrate judge will consider many factors when determining a detainee’s potential release. Factors range from the detainee’s prior criminal history and the nature of the offense committed to the financial resources and even the immigration status of the detainee.

If the detainee is released with conditions, certain terms apply to their release. Some of the most common conditions to release are as follows:

  • The detainee must seek and/or maintain employment
  • The detainee must submit to drug testing and must refrain from using alcohol and controlled substances
  • The detainee will either be subject to house arrest or must remain under the care of a third-party custodian
  • The detainee must not travel outside of the prescribed county, state, or country

The best case scenario, however, would be that the detainee is released without conditions, meaning they are free to traverse the world as they please until the next scheduled court date.

Though this brief overview provides you with a general idea of what to expect at a federal detention hearing, the best way to prepare is by consulting a criminal defense attorney who specializes in federal offenses.