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Criminal Investigations

Overview of Federal Criminal Investigations

A federal criminal investigation is the first step in the federal criminal justice process. In this early stage, federal law enforcement agents are responsible for investigating alleged violations of federal law.

Their task is to determine whether a federal crime was committed, who was responsible, and gathering relevant evidence about the crime. Typically, a federal criminal investigation is initiated after someone files a credible report. In some cases, these investigations are started after a defendant agrees to provide information in exchange for leniency on their case.

Federal Criminal Investigations

Before formal charges are brought against a defendant in federal court, the case must be investigated.  There are a number of federal investigative law enforcement agencies which each focus on particular types of offenses in various jurisdictions.

These include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Department of Homeland Security, and others.

Many cabinet and subcabinet departments have investigative agents which investigate violations of federal law relevant to their particular department.  For instance, the Social Security Administration has investigators who pursue individuals who commit social security fraud or related offenses.

The law enforcement agents are the main actors in a federal criminal investigation. They perform most of the work, such as collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, but they don't work alone.

In a federal criminal investigation, the agents work closely with a federal prosecutor. The prosecutor provides legal guidance and helps them obtain subpoenas and search warrants. The federal prosecutor is responsible for deciding whether to file formal charges once the investigation has been completed.

For certain types of federal criminal investigations, such as fraud crimes or white collar crimes, it's not uncommon for multiple federal agencies to cooperate in a joint investigation.

To give readers more useful information about federal criminal investigations, our federal criminal defense attorneys are providing a review below.

Tools Used by Federal Agents to Investigate Crimes

Federal law enforcement has many tools at its disposal to investigate federal crimes and prepare cases for formal filing of charges.  Let's review a couple of the most common tools below.


A common tool which is utilized in federal investigations is wiretaps.  An application to tap a phone or other electronic device is similar to a search warrant application in that it must be approved by a federal judge.

Once approval is received, federal law enforcement may listen in and record conversations which the parties to the conversation believe are confidential.  This is a powerful tool especially in cases of conspiracy, or RICO cases, in which multiple defendants are involved.

Federal wiretaps sometimes go on for years at a time such that by the time the defendants are indicted, the federal prosecutor will have hours of conversations in their possession which establish the relationships between the important players and exactly which violations of federal law were committed.

While wiretaps are sometimes used in state court cases, their use in federal investigations is far more prevalent.  It is not unusual for federal investigations to last multiple years and involve hundreds of hours of recorded conversations and thousands of pages of documentary evidence.

GPS tracking 

Federal agents will also sometimes employ GPS tracking and other electronic surveillance means to track a suspect's movements and observe their meetings with suspected co-conspirators.

The federal government's ability to employ advanced means of surveillance in building a case against a defendant or group of defendants is largely a product of the higher level of financial and technical resources available to federal law enforcement as well as the much smaller group of potential defendants who are under investigation.

Federal Grand Jury

Once the investigation into a violation of federal law is complete, or nearing completion, the case is often presented to a federal grand jury.

The grand jury will assess the state of the government's evidence and determine if there is probable cause to believe the suspects are guilty of the crimes presented by the government's attorneys.

If the grand jury is satisfied, it will return an indictment against the defendant or defendants.  The indictment then serves as the formal charging document, often initially under seal, which presents the defendant or defendants with the government's allegations about his or her conduct and how it allegedly violates federal law.

Prefiling in Federal Criminal Cases

Because of the relatively lengthier period of time involved and higher degree of attention paid by federal law enforcement to investigations compared with that found in state court cases, there are substantial opportunities for prefiling intervention in federal cases.

A defense attorney representing a suspect being investigated by federal authorities can contact law enforcement on the client's behalf and present issues of proof and mitigating factors of particular relevant to the individual client to try to persuade federal law enforcement, and ultimately the Assistant United States Attorney overseeing the investigation, to drop or reduce charges before they are formally filed in court.

Even if the defendant will ultimately be charged, a prefiling intervention in the investigative stage can set the ground work for a pre-indictment plea agreement which often results in relatively more lenient and favorable treatment at sentencing for the defendant.

Close contact with federal authorities through counsel is often a substantial benefit for a defendant who is seeking the best possible outcome in a federal investigation.

What to Do If You Are Under a Federal Criminal Investigation

If you believe you might be under investigation for alleged criminal activity, the best way to protect yourself is to immediately retain a skilled federal criminal lawyer with experience in federal court.

There are specific things you must do as soon as possible if you are involved in a federal criminal investigation. You need to ensure that your rights are protected and avoid making any mistakes that could hurt your chances at a favorable outcome later.

If you or a family member is under federal investigation, representation by experienced federal criminal defense counsel is crucial. While these investigations can drag on for years, early intervention is often the best way to maximize the chances of a favorable outcome.

Defense counsel in a federal investigation can protect the client's rights by ensuring that they are not interviewed by law enforcement without counsel present in an attempt to obtain an incriminating statement.

Defense counsel can also negotiate with the government, both at the law enforcement and prosecution level, to attempt to work out a pre-indictment plea agreement. Contact our experienced team of federal criminal defense attorneys for an initial consultation at 877-781-1570.

Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked criminal defense law firm representing clients facing any type of federal offense. We are located at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

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