Federal Criminal Investigations

Federal criminal investigations differ from state criminal investigations in many significant ways.  In state investigations, a suspect is often arrested before the case has been thoroughly investigated.  When federal prosecutors bring charges, they have often already thoroughly investigated the matter. Federal criminal investigations do not necessarily have to be initiated by a federal law enforcement agency to be handled by a federal court. State law enforcement investigations involving weapons, drugs, computer crimes, and white collar crimes often end up being prosecuted in the federal courts.  Although initial contact with law enforcement in a federal criminal case may begin with an arrest, it often occurs in a much less alarming manner.  In some cases, the FBI or DEA might call you just to ask a few questions. 

The first contact with a law enforcement agent is not only a good time to get the advice of a criminal defense attorney, it might be the only time for you to do so in order to preserve your ability to defend yourself against future criminal charges.  The initial contact between you and the federal government is an extremely important point in your case.  Federal law enforcement agents have the specific training and extensive experience necessary to elicit incriminating information from people who would never have imagined that they would speak voluntarily with law enforcement.  Agents will frequently emphasize (and exaggerate) the extent of the trouble you face, and may also tell you what others involved in the investigation have (allegedly) said about you.  Agents may also suggest favorable treatment in exchange for information.  In many ways federal law enforcement agents have mastered the art of deception, and they will likely rely on these skills to collect evidence against you.  You have an absolute right to refrain from speaking with any federal agent about anything, and those same agents are required to stop asking you questions provided you invoke this valuable right.  Most agents operate at a very high level of integrity and will terminate questioning upon invocation by the subject of his or her right to remain silent and right to counsel. 

However, you must clearly and unequivocally advise the agents that you refuse to answer any questions without consulting with your lawyer, or without your own criminal defense attorney present.  Statements like “maybe I should talk to a lawyer” or “do I need a lawyer for this?” might not be specific enough to invoke this right when you’re being questioned about money laundering or federal drug crimes.  It is an enormous risk to think you can talk your way out of trouble with the Department of Justice.

There are also often significant differences between state and federal systems in the use of the Grand Jury.   For example, citizens who ultimately end up as defendants in federal criminal cases often get a target letter from the U.S. Attorney which suggests that you might be close to a grand jury indictment on a federal narcotics charge, a mortgage fraud case, or other federal offense.

A federal grand jury obtains much of its evidence by subpoenaing individuals suspected of federal crimes or individuals with knowledge of federal crimes.  The individual subpoenaed can be either a target, subject, or witness.  The “target” of a federal grand jury is a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant. 

It is important to understand that federal prosecutors view the targets of an investigation as guilty.  The term “target” is distinguished from the term “subject,” which means that that person is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s investigation.  Likewise, a “witness” is a person who is expected to help the government find probable cause to have an indictment issue from the grand jury.  All three may be asked or subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, and if the individual is not careful, especially if he is a “subject” or a “witness,” that testimony could hurt rather than help his cause.

If you are subpoenaed for testimony in your individual capacity, you may be able to avoid answering substantive questions by invoking the Fifth Amendment’s Privilege against Self-Incrimination.  This is true even if you are not a target of the investigation.  The right to invoke the Privilege against Self-Incrimination is much broader than most witnesses and attorneys realize.  If a truthful answer to a grand jury question would even tend to incriminate you, you can invoke the privilege and refuse to answer.  How can an answer tend to incriminate you?  If it furnishes any link in the chain that might lead to your conviction, it tends to incriminate.  Can a person who is totally innocent of wrongdoing invoke the privilege? Absolutely!  The Supreme Court has ruled that the privilege protects the innocent as well as the guilty.  An innocent person might need to invoke the privilege to keep from being ensnared by a mistaken, incompetent, or unscrupulous prosecutor.

The Law Offices of Roderick C. White competently and aggressively represents individuals subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury.  Contact us immediately for a free initial consultation before something is said or done that will have a negative effect on your ability to defend against future federal criminal charges.

Lastly, the law enforcement agencies involved in federal criminal investigation differ from those typically conducting criminal matters ultimately prosecuted in state courts.  These law enforcement agencies differ in more than name.  Federal law enforcement agencies have more resources and their personnel typically have vastly more education, training, and experience. 

These agencies typically include the following:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Criminal Investigations Division of the IRS (CID)
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)
  • United States Postal Service (Postal Inspector)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • United States Marshals Service
  • United States Secret Service
  • Office of Inspector General – Various Agencies