How Do Federal Defense Attorneys Investigate Federal Criminal Cases?
When a client is facing potential federal criminal charges, one of the most important jobs of their defense attorney is to conduct a thorough, independent investigation of the case. This investigation serves several key purposes:
Building a Defense Strategy
The information gathered through the independent investigation allows the defense attorney to start formulating an overall defense strategy. This will likely involve:
- Assessing the strength of the prosecution’s case – What are the weaknesses or gaps in their evidence? What challenges can be raised via motions to suppress evidence or other procedural means?
- Developing defense theories – For example, does the evidence better support an alibi or mistaken identity defense? Can lack of criminal intent be shown?
- Identifying affirmative defenses – Are there any legal defenses, such as self-defense or insanity, that could defeat some or all of the charges?
- Determining whether to go to trial – Does the prosecution’s case seem surmountable, or is a plea bargain more prudent? This decision is made in consultation with the client.
- Preparing for potential sentencing – If a guilty verdict seems likely, investigation helps gather mitigating evidence to help secure a lighter sentence.
Protecting the Client’s Rights
A diligent investigation also ensures that the government is not overreaching or violating the defendant’s rights. Defense counsel can file motions to:
- Suppress illegally obtained evidence
- Dismiss defective charges
- Obtain exculpatory evidence withheld by the prosecution
- Challenge unconstitutional conduct by investigators
This requires identifying potential legal and procedural issues based on the information uncovered during the investigation.
When Does the Investigation Begin?
Ideally, the defense attorney is retained early on in the process, even before charges are filed. However, the investigation ramps up after charges are formally brought. It continues all the way through trial, as new information always emerges.
What Investigative Techniques Are Used?
Federal defense attorneys have a wide array of investigative methods available to them, including:
- Interviews – One of the most basic but important techniques, interviews are conducted with both friendly and adverse witnesses.
- Public records searches – Court, government, property, and other public records contain a treasure trove of useful information. Commercial databases make wide-ranging searches possible.
- Subpoenas – Attorneys can compel witnesses to provide documents and testimony via subpoenas authorized by the court.
- Surveillance – While less common, private investigators may conduct video or photographic surveillance of persons relevant to the case.
- Social media research – Social networking sites offer a glimpse into the backgrounds, relationships, and communications of key people involved.
- Forensic analysis – Experts may be retained to scrutinize electronic evidence, reconstruct crime scenes, analyze financial records, and much more.
- Online research – The internet provides access to maps, satellite imagery, news reports, public filings, professional biographies, and all types of data that may assist the investigation.
- Boots on the ground – There’s no substitute for personally visiting relevant locations and neighborhoods to get a firsthand perspective when feasible.
What Legal Protections Exist?
While the government has broad investigative authority, the defense operates under constraints like attorney-client privilege. However, courts have recognized a defendant’s right to mount a “full-fledged defense” allowing significant leeway for independent investigation. Still, ethical rules prohibit obstructing justice, concealing evidence, or interfering with witnesses. It’s a complex balancing act. Experienced federal defense counsel know how to conduct thorough investigations while steering clear of illegal or unethical conduct.
How Is the Client Involved?
- Providing background facts and names of potential witnesses
- Locating relevant records and documents
- Explaining relationships, timelines, habits, and other personal details
The attorney may advise the client not to discuss the case outside of their conversations to avoid accidentally divulging defense strategy.