Any criminal prosecution creates significant stress for defendants. The consequences of a conviction include a negative stigma in society, fines and jail or prison time. To adequately defend a prosecution, you need the effective assistance of counsel — a guarantee afforded by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
If you’re charged with a federal crime, having effective assistance means representation from a lawyer experienced in federal criminal law. As you’ll read below, federal prosecutions present unique and complex challenges and issues not necessarily present in their state counterparts.
What Are Federal Crimes?
Broadly speaking, federal crimes fall into these categories:
Obstructing the judicial system: You might have heard the term “process crimes” by journalists or news pundits. This phrase refers to lying to federal investigators in the course of a criminal investigation. A defendant commits perjury by intentionally or knowingly give false and material testimony in a federal judicial proceeding.
Contraband: Federal crimes in this category include the unlawful possession, sale, distribution or manufacture of controlled substances, weapons and counterfeit money.
Geographic-based: Crimes such as kidnapping or murder normally are prosecuted in state courts. These and other acts become federal offenses when committed across state lines or on federal property such as a military or Native American reservations.
Financial: A significant number of federal prosecutions involve fraud and other financial or business-related misconduct. The list of these white-collar crimes include tax evasion, intentionally or knowingly lying on tax returns and bankruptcy and forms; securities fraud, wire fraud and mail fraud. A money laundering crime arises when you establish shell companies or phony transactions to hide the criminal nature and source of money. These crimes often garner considerable public and media attention as the amounts involved reach millions of dollars.
How Do Federal Prosecutors Build Cases?
In state criminal cases, the evidence against you is often an eyewitness or some video that captures your activity. Although federal crimes are proved by eyewitness testimony, the nature of many federal crimes calls for proof from documents. For example, your tax returns, bankruptcy filings, bank records, financial statements, and sales or promotional materials may implicate you in fraud cases or other financial crimes.
For financial crimes, your investigators may include forensic or other accountants employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service. Postal Inspectors investigate and gather evidence of mail fraud. If you’re accused of securities fraud, enforcement staff in the Securities and Exchange Commission likely have considerable records of your illegal transactions
Other federal agencies prosecute crimes based upon contraband. These include the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration and many divisions within the FBI.
Often, wiretaps and video surveillance run as a common evidentiary thread in federal criminal cases. You may discover, after the fact, that you were the subject of a sting operation. As many federal crimes involve conspiracies, you must contend with witnesses who may implicate you in the illegal activity or enterprise. In short, much of the evidence against you consist of your own words and actions.
How Can You Defend Yourself Against Federal Charges?
Federal crimes raise often complicated and highly technical issues. To meet these challenges and the tremendous resources of the federal government, you need an experienced federal crimes attorney to lead you through the process.
Even in the arena of a federal prosecution, you are presumed innocent. You declare your innocence when you plead not guilty at your arraignment. During this initial appearance, a federal magistrate will read the charges against you and the potential maximum punishment. You have the right to receive a copy of the indictment and to have a lawyer present at the arraignment. True to the nature of federal crimes, you will find that the indictment is fairly lengthy and detailed. The magistrate may also set bail.
Following the arraignment, the preparation for trial or perhaps a settlement of your charges begins in earnest. Your lawyer will request the evidence upon which the prosecutor realize. You also have a right to evidence in the prosecutors hands that tends to negate your guilt. An examination of all the evidence may reveal potential violations of your rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, the privilege against self-incrimination and other important constitutional rights. Prosecution witnesses may have business or other interest and you being convicted such that their testimony may be biased.
In fighting federal charges, your attorney must be able to grasp a complex set of facts and evidence and present persuasive and compelling legal arguments. Consider the lawyer’s experience in criminal proceedings and federal cases in making your selection.
What’s Involved in a Federal Criminal Appeal?
The federal criminal appeals process is something that surprises a lot of people because it’s not quite what they imagined. There are assumptions made by clients and even attorneys about federal criminal appeals that simply are not true. What happens in appellate courts is much different than what happens in district courts, to the dismay of many. There’s often an assumption that at some point, new facts will be presented to an appellate judge. Not only is that a misconception, it happens to be one of many.
Trials can involve juries, witnesses, court reporters, testimony, and the presentation of many facts surrounding the case. This all exists because district courts are considered courts of record. None of these elements are included in an appellate court. Why? Because the federal criminal appeals process is not focused on the facts of the case and they do not receive new evidence. Instead, an appellate court focuses on legal processes and how they are carried out by district courts. In a federal criminal appeal, the judgment made by the district court is challenged on a legal ground. Sometimes it’s challenged on several legal grounds.
When counsel is retained to file an appeal, briefs are submitted in writing on both sides. This is for the purpose of raising issues about what happened in the district court and responding to what has been alleged. Generally speaking, this all happens in writing, instead of during a court appearance. When briefs are submitted for review by appellate courts, sometimes attorneys are surprised by the formal nature of the process because it’s often more stringent than district courts.
A key element of the process is the notice of appeal, which is a brief document that serves the purpose of informing the appellate court and the district court that there is an appeal on the way. The standard and expectation is that the notice of appeal will be submitted within ten days of the district court entering its judgment. Since counsel in the case isn’t automatically counsel for the appeal, a lawyer will need to be retained quickly in order to meet the deadline for filing an appeal. This is no small matter because managing an appeal requires a lot of effort and the workload is substantial.
If you want to file an appeal, it’s imperative that you make a decision quickly. You’ll want to consult with a federal criminal appellate attorney that has a sufficient amount of experience and understands the process. It’s worth noting that there’s an ethical obligation for the lawyer that represented you during the trial to make sure your right to file an appeal is preserved. This certainly doesn’t mean they will represent you during the appeal, but it’s possible that they will file the notice of appeal on your behalf. There’s also what’s called a pro se notice, which is for the purpose of notifying the court that you will file an appeal yourself.
When it comes to the federal criminal appeals process, it’s important to know that the process can take a long time, sometimes more than a year. There’s a lot involved in an appellate appeal, including a review of the case by appellate judges. They are required to examine an extensive amount of information for hundreds of cases. Simply put, there are a lot of cases that run through federal courts, which often causes delays in the process. Some districts take longer than others. For instance, Fourth Circuit courts are known to have a fast turnaround time. However, fast is relative since the average timeframe for receiving a decision is about a year. The courts with the longest turnaround time are in the Ninth Circuit.
Anyone can obtain information regarding the estimated timeframe for an appeal by searching online for the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. While there is no way to get precise information about how long the process will take, you can at least get an estimate.