Federal Crimes and Investigations
The federal criminal justice system can seem complicated and intimidating to those unfamiliar with it. This article aims to explain the key aspects of federal crimes and investigations in an easy-to-understand way.
What is a Federal Crime?
For a crime to fall under federal jurisdiction, it must violate federal law. Murder, for example, is a state crime unless committed under certain federal circumstances like the murder of a federal official. Robbery becomes a federal crime if it involves a federally insured bank. Federal agencies like the FBI investigate federal crimes based on their specific jurisdictions.
Some examples of federal crimes include:
- White collar crimes like wire fraud, identity theft, securities fraud
- Federal drug crimes like trafficking
- Crimes on federal land, federal buildings or involving federal employees
- Crimes crossing state borders like kidnapping or human trafficking
- Cybercrimes like computer hacking
- Civil rights violations
- Federal firearms violations
- Bank robbery
- Child exploitation crimes
If a crime only violates state law, it will be investigated by state or local law enforcement, not federal agencies.
How Do Federal Investigations Begin?
There are a few common ways a federal investigation starts:
- A victim or witness reports a potential federal crime. For example, if a bank is robbed, the bank will contact federal authorities like the FBI.
- Federal agents receive tips from informants hoping for leniency in their own cases.
- Data gathered by federal intelligence agencies points to potential crimes.
- A state or local investigation uncovers evidence of a federal violation and gets referred upwards.
Once a lead comes in, federal agents open an investigation to gather evidence and identify suspects. They work closely with federal prosecutors who provide legal guidance.
Federal Investigation Techniques
Federal agents have many investigative tools at their disposal:
- Surveillance – Physical monitoring of suspects, vehicles, locations, online activity etc. This can go on for months.
- Informants & Cooperators – Getting people close to the suspects to provide information, record conversations, wear wires etc.
- Records Collection – Obtaining financial records, phone records, travel records, medical records, tax returns through subpoenas or warrants.
- Interviews – Questioning suspects, witnesses, experts, associates etc.
- Undercover Operations – Using undercover agents or informants to infiltrate criminal operations.
- Search Warrants – Allow agents to enter and search property for evidence.
- Electronic Surveillance – Wiretaps, accessing stored communications, tracking internet activity.
- Forensic Analysis – Testing DNA, fingerprints, ballistics, digital data etc.
Federal agents can make arrests without warrants and conduct searches with warrants approved by judges. They have far more resources than local law enforcement to conduct long, complex investigations.
Federal Grand Juries
Federal grand juries are groups of citizens who review evidence presented by prosecutors to determine if charges should be filed. They have the power to subpoena documents and witnesses. Grand jury proceedings are kept secret.
If the grand jury finds enough evidence, they will return an indictment recommending criminal charges against the suspects. Suspects can then be arrested and charged.
Over 90% of federal criminal cases end in plea bargains rather than trials. Defendants plead guilty in exchange for prosecutors recommending reduced charges or lighter sentences.
Plea deals allow prosecutors to resolve cases efficiently and get cooperation from defendants in ongoing investigations. Critics argue they give prosecutors too much leverage and lead to overly harsh sentences for those who refuse to plead guilty.
If a case does go to trial and leads to a conviction, a presentence investigation report is prepared by a probation officer before sentencing. This report provides information on the defendant’s background, criminal history and the impact of the crime on victims.
Federal judges use sentencing guidelines to determine sentences based on the crime committed and the defendant’s criminal history. Guidelines provide a sentencing range the judge usually stays within. Mandatory minimum sentences set by Congress also impact sentences for certain crimes.
In 2018, the average federal drug trafficking sentence was 6 years and average fraud sentence was 2 years. Violent crimes like murder or kidnapping can bring decades or life in prison. White collar crimes generally bring shorter sentences than drug or violent crimes.
Stages of Federal Cases
The typical stages of a federal criminal case are:
- Investigation – Federal agents investigate crime and gather evidence.
- Arrest – Suspects are arrested, often before charges are filed.
- Initial Appearance – Suspects appear before a judge who informs them of the charges and their rights. Bail is set.
- Grand Jury – Prosecutors present evidence to a grand jury to get an indictment.
- Arraignment – Defendant enters a plea to the charges in the indictment.
- Motions & Discovery – Both sides file motions and exchange evidence in discovery.
- Plea Bargaining – Negotiations lead to most defendants pleading guilty rather than facing trial.
- Trial – For the few cases that don’t plead out, a trial is held before a judge or jury.
- Sentencing – If found guilty, the defendant is sentenced based on guidelines and statutes.
- Appeals – Convicted defendants can appeal to higher courts on issues like evidentiary rulings, jury instructions, sentencing etc.
This entire process from investigation through appeals can take many months or years to conclude.
Tips if Facing a Federal Investigation
Being caught up in a federal investigation can be scary. Here are some tips if you find yourself under scrutiny by federal agents:
- Hire an experienced federal defense attorney immediately. Do not try to navigate it alone.
- Do not speak to investigators without your lawyer present. Even casual questioning can be dangerous.
- Follow your lawyer’s advice about whether to testify to a grand jury. They can weigh the risks and benefits.
- Be wary of offers to become an informant. Cooperating often leads to more trouble down the road.
- Avoid discussing the case with anyone besides your lawyer and close family. Do not try to coordinate stories.
- Understand the strengths and weaknesses of the government’s case. Your lawyer can explain where you stand.
- Consider the pros and cons of pleading guilty if offered a deal versus taking it trial. Your lawyer can give their assessment.
- Be prepared for a lengthy, complex process that can take years before resolution. Patience is key.
The most important takeaway is – do not try to handle a federal investigation on your own. Hiring experienced counsel early on is critical.
Examples of Federal Crimes
Here are some examples of common federal crimes:
Bank robbery is a federal crime under 18 USC §2113. The FBI investigates bank robberies since they involve federally insured banks. Penalties can include up to 20 years in prison.
Famous bank robbers from history include Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and Willie Sutton. Modern bank robberies are rarer due to increased security measures. 
Wire fraud under 18 USC §1343 means using communications like telephone, television or internet to intentionally defraud someone out of money or property.
Common wire fraud schemes include phishing emails, romance scams on dating sites, online auction fraud, and business email compromise. Penalties include up to 20 years in prison.
The DEA enforces federal laws like the Controlled Substances Act that make drug trafficking a federal crime. Penalties vary based on the amount and type of drug.
For example, trafficking over 500 grams of cocaine carries 5 to 40 years in prison under 21 USC 841. Trafficking large quantities of fentanyl can lead to decades in prison.
The IRS investigates tax crimes like tax evasion and filing false returns under 26 USC 7201. Offenders face up to 5 years in prison.
Al Capone was famously convicted of tax evasion in 1931 for not paying taxes on income from his criminal enterprises.
Stealing personal information like social security numbers to obtain credit cards or loans is identity theft under 18 USC 1028. It carries up to 15 years in prison.
The Internet has made identity theft much easier to perpetrate on a mass scale. The FBI investigates large identity theft rings.
Under 18 USC 249, violent crimes motivated by bias over race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc. can be charged as federal hate crimes.
Hate crimes carry enhanced penalties – for example, 10 years added to an underlying offense’s sentence.
Sexual exploitation and trafficking of children are prosecuted under 18 USC 2251 and 2422. Possessing, producing or distributing child pornography can result in decades in prison.
The Internet has enabled more widespread trafficking and sharing of child pornography. The FBI has a Crimes Against Children program to combat this.
This overview provides a sampling of some of the most common federal crimes. There are hundreds of federal statutes covering a wide array of criminal offenses that the FBI, DEA, ATF and other agencies investigate and help prosecute.
The Federal Criminal Justice Process
Here is a quick rundown of the key steps in the federal criminal justice process after a crime occurs:
- Crime is reported to federal agency like FBI or DEA
- Investigation is opened and federal agents gather evidence
- Evidence is presented to a federal grand jury
- Grand jury returns an indictment charging the suspect
- Suspect is arrested and makes initial appearance in court
- Suspect is arraigned and enters a plea of guilty or not guilty
- Pretrial motions and discovery takes place
- Plea negotiations usually result in a guilty plea
- For cases that don’t plead out, a trial is held
- If convicted, sentencing occurs under federal guidelines
- Convicted defendant can appeal to a higher federal court
While this presents the basic workflow, the process is often not as linear in practice. Investigations can weave in and out of grand jury proceedings. New indictments can be brought. Sentencing may be delayed for defendant cooperation.