In federal court, the first hearing is during the initial appearance. There will be a complaint filed. There’ll usually be an agent from the FBI, DEA or maybe even a customs agency. The agent may say, in the complaint “I am Mr. Smith and I worked for the DEA for 16 years. I’ve handled hundreds of investigations involving controlled substances. In this situation, I saw John Smith meet with other people, have a scale, weigh things, meet with people in cars and talk about certain things on the phone. In my training and experience, I believe he was committing the crime of distribution of controlled substance or conspiracy to distribute controlled substance.”
Before the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor will present the case to the grand jury and the grand jury will hand down what’s called a “True Bill,” which is an indictment. In federal court, I have NEVER seen any case proceed to a preliminary hearing. The Federal Government will always indict, unless a deal is worked out prior to the filing of the indictment, and the client may “proceed by information” (an information is another word for complaint) which means the client waives the right to be indicted and the information sets forth the crimes to which he is pleading.