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3 things you need to know about federal investigations

In the United States, far more people go to prison for state crimes than federal offenses, but federal charges are just as serious, if not more so. If you suspect you may be charged with a federal crime, here are a few things you need to know.

1. What counts as a federal offense?

Some crimes are illegal at both the state and federal levels, while others are defined by federal law alone. Federal offenses also include crimes committed on federal property and those that span more than one state. Here are some examples:

  • Drug crimes, especially serious ones
  • Kidnapping
  • Child pornography
  • Bank robbery
  • Securities and financial crimes
  • Mail fraud, wire fraud, computer crimes and identity theft
  • Counterfeiting
  • Tax evasion

While state crimes are investigated by police, federal crimes are investigated by federal agents, such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Homeland Security Investigation. There are many federal agencies with law enforcement authority, and more than one agency may be involved in any particular case.

State crimes are typically prosecuted by county or district attorneys, while federal crimes are prosecuted by a network of United States Attorneys assigned to each federal district.

2. There is often a grand jury investigation during or after the criminal investigation

Once the U.S. Attorney feels confident that there is enough evidence to charge you, he or she may convene a grand jury. The Fifth Amendment requires a grand jury indictment for any federal felony.

A grand jury is a group of about 16-23 citizens who are brought in to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for an indictment. Their role is not to determine guilt but merely whether the U.S. Attorney has enough evidence to charge you. Therefore, the defense has no official role in grand jury proceedings. (If you believe you are under investigation by a grand jury, however, you should get an attorney right away.)

Grand juries operate in secret, have investigative powers and need not be unanimous. They can compel the testimony of witnesses, and those witnesses are not entitled to counsel. Only 12 jurors need to agree in order for an indictment to issue.

3. You should get an attorney involved as soon as you think you're being investigated

Federal charges are often brought only after substantial investigation. They may not alert you to the investigation. If they do, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to protect your rights and to address the allegations. The sooner your defense attorney gets involved, the greater potential for resolving the investigation without charges or with minimal charges.

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