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How Federal Criminal Investigations Begin – Attorney Outline

By Spodek Law Group | October 20, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 08:46 pm


How Federal Criminal Investigations Begin – Attorney Outline

Getting caught up in a federal criminal investigation can be scary. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, the resources and powers of the federal government can feel overwhelming. This article will walk through the basics of how these investigations get started, so you can be prepared in case you ever find yourself on the wrong side of a federal inquiry.

The Starting Point

Federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, etc. all have jurisdiction to enforce specific federal laws. They rely on various sources to identify potential criminal activity that falls under their authority. Things like:

  • Tips from informants or witnesses
  • Referrals from other law enforcement agencies
  • Public tips reported to hotlines
  • Suspicious activity noticed by agency personnel

For example, let’s say the FBI gets an anonymous tip that John Smith has been involved in a complex Medicare fraud scheme. The tipster provides some documentation backing up their claim. This would likely spark an initial inquiry by the FBI into John Smith and his business dealings.

In other cases, investigations can start based on intelligence gathering and data analysis by the agencies themselves. The IRS, for instance, uses advanced analytics to flag tax returns that seem questionable and warrant more scrutiny.

The Preliminary Investigation

Once a potential issue has been identified, the agency will open what’s called a preliminary investigation. This is an initial look into the matter to determine if there are grounds for a full criminal investigation.

At this stage, agents have limited tools at their disposal. They may review public records, perform surveillance, talk to witnesses, or issue administrative subpoenas for basic records about a business or individual. The goal is to gather enough information to decide if there’s reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

For instance, in our Medicare fraud example, the FBI might start by pulling John Smith’s business filings, obtaining licenses and permits, looking at relevant financial records, and doing basic background checks on Smith and his associates. This prelim work would help them determine if the tip seems credible.

Opening a Full Investigation

If the preliminary investigation turns up evidence supporting potential criminal violations, the agency can then open a full federal criminal investigation. This gives investigators considerably more power to dig deeper through the use of tools like:

  • Subpoenas for documents, electronic records, etc.
  • Warrants to search homes/offices
  • Interviews of targets and witnesses
  • Undercover operations
  • Court-authorized wiretaps

To open a full investigation, the agency must establish an articulable factual basis for doing so. There must be facts connecting specific people to potential violations of federal law. Our Medicare fraud example would likely meet this standard if the prelim work uncovered suspicious claims, payments, or witness accounts.

Grand Jury Investigation

Once a full investigation has begun, the next step is often presenting evidence to a federal grand jury. A grand jury consists of 16-23 citizens who hear evidence in secret proceedings. The grand jury can compel documents and testimony using federal subpoenas.

The purpose of the grand jury is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to evaluate whether there’s probable cause that one or more federal crimes were committed. If so, the grand jury indicts the suspects, formally charging them with specific federal criminal violations. Our Medicare fraud case could potentially lead to an indictment charging John Smith with health care fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and/or other related counts.

Key Takeaways

So in summary, here are some key points about how federal criminal investigations take shape:

  • They often begin with a tip, referral, or agency observation suggesting illegal activity.
  • A preliminary inquiry is opened to gather basic facts and assess reasonable suspicion.
  • If the prelim investigation yields sufficient evidence, a full federal criminal case is opened.
  • The case may then be presented to a grand jury to obtain criminal indictments.

Of course, the specifics vary widely depending on the agency, violations, and complexity involved. But these are the basic stages federal agents follow when developing an investigation that could lead to criminal prosecution. Understanding this process is helpful for anyone who finds themselves facing a federal inquiry.

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