While most prosecuted crimes are handled at the state level, the United States federal criminal code lists and defines crimes that are within federal jurisdiction. These trials are pursued by federal prosecutors, although sometimes state prosecutors may also prosecute certain crimes such as drug trafficking as well. Federal trials differ from state trials regarding how the trials are conducted, which investigative agencies pursue possible suspects, and the sentences given to those convicted.
What are some common examples of federal crimes?
Common federal crimes include:
- Tax fraud
- Mail fraud
- Wire fraud
- RICO violations
- Immigration crime (human trafficking)
- Drug trafficking
- Gun offenses
- Money laundering
- Child pornography
- Tax evasion
- Criminal activity which crosses state lines
Federal sentences are often much more drastic than state sentences. Federal prosecutors often have much more access to investigative resources, so their pursuit of a conviction can be far more relentless, and far more rigorous than state attorneys. If you are facing federal charges, you need to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately; do not wait. While defendants should always seek counsel as soon as possible, the consequences of self-incrimination due to lack of counsel during each stage of a federal trial can be uniquely disastrous.
What are the important stages of a Federal Criminal Case?
Investigation and Arrest
The federal government utilizes certain agencies to conduct investigations and provide information to United States Attorneys. These agencies include:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
- United States Secret Service (USSS)
- Homeland Security Investigation (DHS/HSI)
These agencies collect both direct and circumstantial evidence that is used to build a case against you. These agencies are far more efficient and well-funded than state counterparts, so it’s important to consult a federal criminal defense attorney as soon as possible so that they can find the specifics of your case and possible defense strategies.
Federal arrests can be unexpected and depending on the amount of probable cause law enforcement may have in your case, an arrest could be made before an investigation begins.
Soon after an arrest, a federal prosecutor will take your case before a grand jury containing between 16 and 23 people. The grand jury will be tasked with determining if the federal government has enough evidence to take your case to trial. This standard is far lower than the standard for determining guilt, and the role of the defendant at this stage is limited. While you do have the right to testify, it is in your best interests to seek counsel from an experienced attorney prior to doing so.
Initial Hearing / Arraignment
If you are arrested and charged, you will quickly be brought before a magistrate judge for an initial hearing. At this time, you will learn more about the case being made against you. Depending on the specifics of your case, a judge will also determine if you are eligible for bond. At this stage, an attorney can increase your chances of a favorable hearing by calling character witnesses and making the case for bond to be granted.
You will also be asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty at this time. It is crucial that you have an attorney’s advice prior to doing so; depending on the facts and circumstances of your case, going to trial may or may not be the most strategic move.
If you have entered a plea of not guilty, a preliminary hearing will likely be held. The federal government must show that it has enough evidence to charge you. The preliminary stage is the first chance that you and your attorney have an opportunity to challenge the government’s evidence. While evidence will be introduced, and the defense may cross-examine witnesses, the preliminary hearing is not a trial. Evidence that would normally not be presented at trial may be used at a preliminary hearing. The government’s burden at this stage is low. Nevertheless, a preliminary hearing can be an excellent opportunity for your attorney to discover weaknesses in the government’s case.
How can a criminal defense attorney assist me?
At every stage of a federal criminal case, an experienced attorney is indispensable. Even during proceedings where defense testimony is limited, is it crucial that you have counsel that can ensure that you do not incriminate yourself. Having an attorney fighting for you early on will help leave you with strategic options open down the line. Although federal cases are far more serious than others, you still have many options. A talented federal criminal defense lawyer will fight at every step of the way by filing strategic motions, presenting compelling character testimony, challenging the government’s evidence and witnesses, and ensuring that your rights are not violated. If you or someone you know is being charged with a federal offense, please do not wait to contact an attorney.