Federal Government Investigations
It can be extremely frightening to realize you are the target of a federal investigation. Of course, being the target of any investigation is not a pleasant experience, but the federal government not only has more resources than most states, but it also has much harsher penalties in place than states for the same criminal offenses.
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A federal investigation is the first step in the process of federal criminal justice when it is believed an individual or entity has committed a criminal offense. The goal of a federal criminal investigation—just like the goal of a state criminal investigation—is to determine whether a crime has actually been committed, if so, who is responsible, and to gather evidence pertaining to the offense.
Federal criminal investigations often begin with a “tip” from a defendant in a pending case who is trading information for leniency in his or her own case. In other instances, federal criminal investigations could be the result of data gathered by a federal agency, such as the CIA, SEC, FDA, DHS, HIS, ATF, DEA, FBI, etc. The investigators at these federal agencies will help prosecutors understand the details of the specific case; while prosecutors may work with just one agency, sometimes more than one governmental agency is involved.
For federal investigations that involve such things as large-scale white-collar crimes or violent transnational gangs, it is likely that multiple federal agencies, or federal and state agencies, to join together in the investigation. While one agency will generally take the lead in such an investigation, there will be cooperation between all the agencies involved, as they have a common goal.
Law enforcement agents (such as FBI special agents) typically perform the majority of the work during a federal criminal investigation, while working closely with a federal prosecutor. The prosecutor assists the agents in obtaining legal documents, such as search warrants and subpoenas, and the prosecutor determines whether criminal charges will be brought when the investigation is complete.
Direct Evidence vs. Circumstantial Evidence
Prosecutors must look at both direct evidence as well as circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence fully supports a fact, without the use of inference. As an example, eyewitness testimony is considered direct evidence because the eyewitness actually saw the crime occur. Circumstantial evidence, on the other hand, is indirect evidence—evidence that is not based on a person’s first-hand experience. Circumstantial evidence requires a jury to infer guilt or innocence based on impressions by individuals that did not actually witness an event. Prosecutors are highly skilled at making the most innocent event seem sinister and convincing juries that a lack of evidence has nothing to do with your guilt or innocence.
What Is the Process of a Federal Investigation?
A federal criminal investigation often involves a search warrant, which requires probable cause. Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, law enforcement must have probable cause prior to searching an individual’s home, person, vehicle, or other property. Further, the search warrant should come from a “neutral” judge. Like a search warrant, an arrest requires probable cause as well. Prior to obtaining a search warrant or an arrest warrant, it is likely that at least some of the following investigational techniques were implemented:
- Your phone may have been wiretapped.
- You may have been under physical surveillance for weeks, or months.
- Your online activity may have been monitored.
- Another person you know may have worn a wire at the request of federal agents.
- Your financial records—including your bank records and tax returns—may have been under review.
- There may have been grand jury subpoenas issued for testimony from others or for document production.
- Search warrants may have been executed for your computer, phone, or other items.
- Witness interviews may have been conducted.
You may have been totally unaware of the ongoing investigation against you, or you may have had some idea that you were under investigation. You should be aware that federal law enforcement agents are highly trained to secure information that will further their investigation. As an example, an agent might show up at your home very early in the morning before you are fully prepared or even awake, as a means of gaining a psychological edge.
Like state and local law enforcement, federal agents can and do use deception as a part of their investigation. They may tell that you are not the target of their investigation, or that they are seeking information on another individual. The goal, of course, is to get you to make incriminating statements that can be used against you.
Would You Know if You Were Under Federal Investigation?
Federal investigations typically take a significant amount of time—possibly even years—before federal criminal charges are lodged. Federal investigations are also usually very covert, with all evidence “classified.” Agents are trained not to discuss their investigations, even with family members. Because of all these things, you might have no idea you have been under investigation. There are times, however, when you will be contacted directly by an agent or prosecutor in one of the following ways.
- You could possibly be contacted by an agent by phone, asking you for a meeting.
- A federal prosecutor might send you a letter that states you are the target of an investigation—known as a target letter.
- A former colleague or business associate may tell you a federal agent interviewed him or her.
- You could receive a grand jury subpoena that requires you to show up and testify.
- You could receive a subpoena that requires you to provide specific documents.
- A search warrant could be executed for your home or your place of business.
- Federal agents could show up unannounced at your home or where you work to interrogate you.
These events can occur simultaneously, one after another in quick succession, or could be spaced out over months. You may have no idea you are under investigation until federal agents knock on your door one morning with a search warrant. As they are executing the search warrant, one or more federal agents may attempt to interrogate you. Following a search warrant, you are likely to be handed a target letter, telling you are the subject of an investigation.
As soon as any of these events occur, you should immediately contact an attorney that is highly experienced in federal criminal offenses. It is not advisable to answer any questions from a federal agent until you have spoken to an attorney. Not only should you not speak to agents or investigators you should also refrain from speaking to third parties regarding the investigation without first asking your attorney.
This is due to the fact that anyone you talk to might eventually be interviewed about the alleged crime—or those same people might already be cooperating with federal agents and you would certainly not want to tell them anything. Further, even the most innocent comment you make to a third party could be misconstrued as obstruction of justice—an attempt to cover up the facts. This would result in additional criminal charges.
How Long Can a Federal Investigation Last?
As mentioned above, a federal investigation can last weeks, months, or even years, although it cannot exceed the federal statutes of limitations for the specific offense you are being charged with. The statutes of limitations dictate how long after the commission of a criminal offense a person can be indicted. If you have not been charged by the time the specific statutes of limitations have run, the federal government can no longer investigate you for the offense. Most federal criminal offenses have a statute of limitations of five years, although some are longer.
As an example, bank fraud, violations of immigration law, and arson all have a statute of limitations of ten years. Federal kidnapping charges also have a ten-year statute of limitations, or the lifetime of the child, whichever is longer. Federal art theft charges have a statute of twenty years. Capital offenses (any offense that carries the death penalty as a punishment) have no statute of limitations, meaning there is no limit to the amount of time these crimes can be investigated. There are also certain crimes that happen over an extended period of time—like a conspiracy. For this type of federal crime, the statutes do not begin to run until the offense has “finished.”
What to Do When You Find Out You are the Target of a Federal Criminal Investigation
There are certain things you should do—and that you should not do—when you find out you are the target of a federal investigation. Naturally, you are probably anxious and frightened, but the first thing you must do is hire an experienced federal criminal attorney. Federal investigations are complex—much more complex than local or state investigations. Your attorney can guide you through each stage of the investigation, warning you of typical legal “traps” the government may put in your way, and defending your rights every step of the way.
While you do not have to answer questions in a way that incriminates you, never, ever lie to a federal agent, as this is a separate crime under 18 U.S. C. Section 1001. Even if you are not under oath, you can be prosecuted for lying to a federal agent with each offense punishable by up to five years in prison, and sentence enhancements of up to eight years for specific crimes. Do not talk at all until you have discussed what you will say with your attorney and have your attorney present when you are questioned. In the same vein, never destroy evidence, as you could be charged with obstruction of justice. Never destroy, modify, or tamper with documents, whether paper documents or electronic documents. Even deleting a portion of an electronic document can trigger additional charges.
Get the Help You Need
You want a team of experienced, passionate federal crimes lawyer that are ready to fight for you. Contact the Ciccarelli legal team today at (610) 692-8700. We serve federal criminal clients throughout Pennsylvania and are convenient to our clients with office locations in Philadelphia, West Chester, Lancaster, Springfield, Malvern, Plymouth Meeting, Lancaster, and Radnor and also available for phone and video meetings. You can have our lawyers provide an honest and thorough evaluation of your case when you call (610) 692-8700 or complete an online contact form to schedule a free, confidential consultation.