The initial stages of a criminal case in federal court can be a confusing and anxiety-producing time for a person who has been arrested.   Here’s an explanation of what a federal criminal arrestee can expect at the beginning of the case.

In general, the initial stages of a federal criminal case typically come in three steps: (1) the arrestee’s initial appearance, (2) a preliminary hearing, and (3) a detention hearing.

This article discusses what a person can expect at a preliminary hearing in a federal criminal case.

What is a preliminary hearing?  An arrestee (now referred to as the “defendant”) is entitled to a preliminary hearing—commonly known as a “probable case hearing”—to learn about the basis for the criminal charge.  It is important to note, however, that a defendant doesn’t have right to a preliminary hearing if an indictment or other formal charging document (referred to as an “information”) has already been filed against the defendant.  If an indictment or criminal information has been filed, the preliminary hearing will be cancelled because the indictment or the criminal information themselves contain the basis for probable cause.

When is the preliminary hearing held?   A defendant who is being held in custody is entitled to a preliminary hearing within 10 days of the defendant’s initial appearance.  (Please refer to Part 1 of this series for a discussion of what to expect at the initial appearance.)  A defendant who is not being held in custody is entitled to a preliminary hearing within 20 days of the initial appearance.

What happens at a preliminary hearing?  The prosecutor typically presents sworn testimony to establish that probable cause exists that an offense was committed and that the defendant committed that offense.  The court rules allow a defendant or the defendant’s attorney to cross-examine the government’s witnesses at a preliminary hearing.  The defendant can also call witnesses and produce evidence in an attempt to show the lack of probable cause.

The preliminary hearing is a very important court hearing because it is the defendant’s first chance to cross-examine government witnesses and learn more about the government’s case.  Our attorneys at Beggs & Lane have decades of experience in representing clients prior to, during, and after preliminary hearings. Contact us for a consultation.


Beggs & Lane’s White Collar Criminal Defense and Internal Investigations Group is led by former First Assistant United States Attorney David McGee.  The Group includes Gregory R. Miller, a former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida; Charles T. Wiggins, a Board-Certified Civil Trial Lawyer and former criminal prosecutor with the Office of the State Attorney, First Judicial Circuit of Florida; and Matthew P. Massey, a former Assistant United States Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.