What is a Federal Criminal Investigation?

Federal criminal investigations take place when an incident has occurred, or is occurring; that law enforcement believes is a violation of a Federal or State law. These suspected crimes often include white collar offenses, cyber crimes, immigration offenses, or complicated conspiracies involving several potential defendants. These investigations are typically lengthy, beginning months, if not years, before any formal criminal charges are brought against an individual.

During the investigation stage, law enforcement attempts to obtain information regarding suspected illegal activity. Much of this information will later be compiled and given to a defendant in the form of “discovery.” The information contained in discovery will often be used as evidence against the defendant. Based upon information law enforcement obtains during the investigative process, some investigations “balloon” into a more complex multi-target operation, even when it may have started as a simple investigation into a single individual’s conduct.

How do Federal Criminal Investigations Begin?

Law Enforcement often begins a pre-charging investigation based upon information provided by a third party or an “informant.” Federal law enforcement agencies are very adept at interviewing and obtaining information via third parties regarding “criminal conduct.” The only flaw with this method is that, on occasion, the information given to agents is “self-serving” and not always accurate. Sometimes the informant himself has been arrested and will give erroneous information in order to better his situation. However, this “misinformation” tends to be the exception to the rule and is uncommon.

Other investigations may begin based upon irregularities in financial or reporting documents. For example, many investigations stem from newly enacted “Bank Reporting” requirements. Banks are now required to report to the federal government many transactions that were previously private. If an individual makes a deposit into a bank account and the deposit amount is over a certain value, banks are required by law to report this transaction. Companies such as MoneyGram and WesternUnion, that send money via wire-transfers, are also required by law to report suspicious activity.

Some investigations may also begin based upon “good old fashion police work.” Also figuratively known as the “get lucky stop,” law enforcement will run stings trying to identify and locate individuals engaging in unlawful behavior. On the federal side, this type of investigation is often used to prevent certain cyber or computer crimes. An agent will enter a website or chat-room and begin conversations with those partaking in the discussion. They will then try to illicit illegal images or videos, in an attempt to stop the distribution of pornographic materials involving children.

However, the most common way a pre-charging investigation will begin is through a complaint made by a third party directly to law enforcement. This might be a neighbor calling police to report suspicious behavior, or a “victim” calling to report a crime. In a business setting these police reports might be made by an employee or a competitor.

An investigation can begin in an infinite number of ways. Law enforcement will often use a hybrid approach, and implement several investigation tactics. Because of this, it is important to understand that you have an equally important right to make sure you protect yourself, just as law enforcement has every right to begin and conduct an investigation. You must take the necessary steps to ensure that your interests are also represented. You are afforded certain constitutional protections that should often be exercised and certainly never forgotten.

How Does Law Enforcement Conduct Investigations?

Law Enforcement agencies conduct investigations through many means. The tactics used will depend upon the type of crime and the individuals involved. For example, if the target of an investigation is a single individual suspected of receiving federal or governmental aid through fraudulent misrepresentations, the method of investigation used by law enforcement would be very different from that used to investigate a complex and dangerous criminal organization.

Often times, on the more complex cases involving several targets, agents will obtain warrants to tap cell phones. They might also request a warrant allowing a GPS monitor device to be attached to the vehicles of the suspects. If an informant or “Confidential Source” is being used, this person might be equipped with a wire to record conversations. Agents would then begin the surveillance portion of the investigation. During this time suspects will be followed and each and every detail will be recorded. This information will eventually be given to the defendant in discovery.

Economic crimes tend to be investigated in a very different fashion. Agents will often obtain warrants to review financial records. Eventually agents will secure a warrant freezing the target’s accounts. In some instances the money is actually removed from the account and held by the government prior to the filing of charges or any admission of guilt. This could lead to the serving of a search warrant on the place of business, allowing law enforcement to secure electronic devices and the data within. Then, they will review this data, and the United States Attorney’s Office will decide if formal charges will be filed.

The final and most common tactic used during an investigation is the interviewing of witnesses. Agents will interview individuals they feel might have pertinent information regarding the investigation. They will compile these witness statements in order to build evidence against the person of interest. Generally, the agents will interview from the “outside in.” Meaning the suspect will be the last person interviewed.

How Do I know if I am Under Investigation?

It can be very difficult to ascertain whether you are under investigation. Law enforcement is not required to inform you of their investigation. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, law enforcement is allowed to lie to suspects. If law enforcement was not allowed to lie, police investigations would become ineffective and in many ways useless. It is important to understand that you need the advice of a qualified attorney if you are being investigated.

Signs exist that you may be under investigation. If you are contacted and questioned by law enforcement regarding your conduct pertaining to a specific matter, then you might be under investigation. Remember, if they are speaking to you, then it is likely they have interviewed everyone else and are nearing the end of the investigation. You might also be told by third parties that an agent was asking about you or your business. These are all signs that you need to speak with any attorney.

In more serious situations, you might become aware that you are being followed. Surveillance is a very common method of investigation. Remember, your expectation of privacy is greatly diminished while in public. Law enforcement does not need a warrant to follow you and or to take pictures.

What Should I do if I believe I am the target of a criminal Investigation?

If you have reason to believe that you are under investigation, call our office immediately and schedule a consultation. You need a qualified attorney to help you through this process. This includes help in determining if you should meet with police and the extent of your potential criminal liability, along with discussing economic decisions and legal ramifications. These are just a few areas that will need to be addressed. The most common mistake committed by an unrepresented individual is saying or doing something that makes their situation worse and exposes them to more liability.

Our firm has an enormous amount of experience handling pre-charging investigations. In some cases, we are able to avoid the filing of formal charges. In all cases, we are able to ensure that your constitutional rights are protected. Furthermore, we are always able to avoid a situation in which you cause more harm to your case. Whether it is via an incriminating statement or simply continuing a course of action that is going to harm you, we are able to help protect you and give you the best possible counsel under the circumstances.