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What Is A Federal Investigation?

In the federal criminal justice system, a federal investigation is what begins the process. During the investigation stage, federal law enforcement agents investigate individuals for alleged violations of federal law with the goal of determining whether or not a federal crime was committed, if the individual they are investigating was involved and if there is evidence supporting their claims that a crime was committed.

How Do Federal Investigations Get Started?

A federal investigation may come about after someone has reported a crime. Or, a federal agency may learn about an alleged crime through conversations with defendants in other criminal cases. Suspects in such cases may hope to increase their chances of getting a favorable plea deal by providing information about other people’s criminal activities. Another impetus for a federal investigation is the discovery of suspicious data gathered by a federal intelligence or regulatory agency.

Who Conducts A Federal Investigation?

Federal investigations are conducted primarily by federal law enforcement agents, who gather evidence and interview witnesses. Designated agents may collaborate with federal prosecutors. The law enforcement agency responsible for investigating whether a federal crime has occurred depends on the specific characteristics of the offense.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is likely to get involved if the investigation involves any of the following: mail fraud, identity theft, kidnappings, bombings or bomb threats, and serial killers. The U.S. Postal Inspector is involved with the investigation of federal crimes including mail fraud, money laundering, identity theft, illegal narcotics, and cybercrime.

Homeland Security investigates all types of cross-border criminal activity, including bulk cash smuggling activities, cybercrimes, and other financial crimes. They also investigate trade crimes such as intellectual property theft, identity theft, commercial fraud and benefits fraud.

The IRS investigates tax fraud, identity theft, money laundering, bank fraud, public corruption, and entitlement and subsidy fraud.

More than one federal and/or state agency may work collaboratively, sharing resources and intelligence in a joint investigation. Once the joint investigation is completed, the case is turned over to a federal prosecutor who will decide whether to bring any formal criminal charges.

How Is A Federal Investigation Conducted?

Federal law enforcement agents may use a number of investigative techniques, including:

  • Gathering information by wiretapping a suspect’s phone line
  • Watching a suspect’s movements over an extended period, perhaps through drone surveillance
  • Monitoring the suspect’s internet communications and transactions
  • Using a wire to record conversations
  • Examining bank, tax and other financial documents pertaining to a suspect
  • Subpoenaing testimonies and documentation through the authority of a grand jury
  • Executing search warrants to examine tablet and laptop computers and other mobile devices, including cellphones
  • Interviewing witnesses and inviting suspects to talk about possible offers

How Do I Know If I Am Under Federal Investigation?

Federal investigations can take years before any federal criminal charges are filed; and in most cases, they tend to be conducted without the defendant’s knowledge. It is not uncommon for individuals to have no idea they are even under federal investigation until one of the following happens:

  • A federal law enforcement agent requests a meeting with the defendant
  • The defendant is formally notified by a federal prosecutor through a target letter that they are the target of an investigation
  • Without notice, federal agents show up at the defendant’s home, place of employment or place of business to request an interrogation or simply start asking questions
  • A search warrant is executed by federal agents at a defendant’s home, place of employment or place of business
  • The defendant receives a grand jury subpoena, which requires them to testify or supply agents with documents concerning an alleged crime

What Does It Mean If I Receive A Grand Jury Subpoena?

If you receive a grand jury subpoena, you are considered to be either a witness, a subject or a target. It is crucial to understand your status in a federal investigation to know whether or not you will be charged with a federal crime.

  • Witness: Being designated as a witness in a federal investigation means that the defense or prosecution believes that you may be able to provide relevant information regarding alleged criminal activity that may prove the guilt or innocence of the defendant. An individual does not need to have physically witnessed, observed or seen the alleged crime in order to be considered a witness.
  • Subject: A “subject of an investigation” is a person who is believed to have engaged in conduct that is deemed unethical, appears suspicious or appears to violate the law. With subjects of an investigation, prosecutions often cannot say with absolute certainty that they have a provable case at present time and as such, further investigation is needed on the part of prosecutors.
  • Target: A “target of an investigation” is a person who prosecutors believe they have sufficient evidence against to show that individual either committed an alleged crime or evidence suggesting that the individual is linked to the alleged crime. If federal prosecutors designate you as the target of an investigation, they are providing you with a formal warning that they will soon bring federal criminal charges against you.

What If Federal Agents Try To Speak With Me?

DO NOT speak with federal agents without first speaking with a knowledgeable and experienced federal criminal defense attorney. You are under no obligation to make any statements to federal agents and anything of your oral or written communications may become evidence against you. If you are the target of a federal investigation or implicated as a participant in an alleged crime, you should seek legal representation without delay.

Cooperate With The Government

Sometimes it makes sense for federal criminal defendants to cooperate with the government to receive a reduced sentence. At sentencing, the government will file a Motion for Departure under § 5K1.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines which can result in a decreased sentence of either probation or a 25%-50% reduction in prison time (depending on the extent of cooperation).
The best time to begin cooperating is during the investigation and before criminal charges are filed. Cooperation can involve providing information that will lead to the investigation and arrest of other persons, going undercover, agreeing to repeated debriefings with law enforcement officers, agreeing to meetings with prosecutors and defense attorneys, and testifying in court or testifying before a grand jury.

Get Help From An Experienced Federal Investigation Attorney

Ann Fitz frequently represents people who have given testimony or have come under suspicion through federal investigations. In many cases, Ms. Fitz can resolve federal investigations for her clients discreetly without federal criminal charges being filed. When criminal charges are inevitable, she makes sure her clients are in the best position possible to defend against those charges when they are filed.

You can talk with attorney Ann Fitz in a free initial consultation at her firm’s West Palm Beach office. Call 561-932-1690 or send her an email to schedule your consultation.