What is a federal investigation?

A federal investigation is the first step in the federal criminal justice process. In the investigation stage, federal law enforcement agents are investigating individuals for potential violations of federal law. Their goals are to determine: (1) whether a federal crime has been committed; (2) the parties responsible; and (3) the evidence pertaining to the crime, if any.

How does a federal investigation begin? 

A federal investigation is usually triggered by the filing of a crime report. Sometimes, it can begin as a result of information law enforcement agents receive from defendants in pending criminal cases who are hoping to receive leniency by offering substantial assistance in the form of cooperation,or a federal investigation may begin when data gathered by a federal intelligence agency, such as the CIA, or from a civil investigation performed by a regulatory agency, such as the SEC or the FDA, is turned over to law enforcement.

Who conducts a federal investigation? 

Federal investigations are conducted primarily by federal law enforcement agents, who gather evidence and interview witnesses.  In a federal investigation, agents assigned to the case work closely with a federal prosecutor. The prosecutor gives the agents legal guidance, and helps the agents with obtaining legal documents such as subpoenas and search warrants.

The law enforcement agency responsible for investigating whether a federal crime has occurred depends on the specific characteristics of the offense.  The FBI is usually involved with the investigation of federal crimes including bombings, mail fraud, kidnappings, serial killers, and identity theft.  The U.S. Postal Inspector is involved with the investigation of federal crimes including mail fraud, money laundering, identity theft, illegal narcotics, and cyber crime.  Homeland Security investigates all types of cross-border criminal activity, including financial crimes, bulk cash smuggling, cyber crimes, trade crimes such as commercial fraud and intellectual property theft, and identity and benefit fraud.  The IRS investigates tax fraud, identity theft, money laundering, bank fraud, public corruption, and entitlement and subsidy fraud.

It is not uncommon for multiple federal agencies, or federal and state agencies, to work in partnership in federal investigations, sharing resources and intelligence in a joint investigation. In these situations, one or more agents may take the charge and serve as the “lead” or “case” agent overseeing the investigation.

Once the investigation is completed, the case is turned over to a federal prosecutor who will decide whether to bring any formal criminal charges.

How is a federal investigation conducted?

Federal law enforcement agents use a number of investigative techniques during the course of a federal investigation, including:

  • wiretapping the suspect’s phone
  • performing physical surveillance over a period of weeks or months, including drone surveillance
  • monitoring the suspect’s online activity
  • using a wire to record conversations
  • reviewing a suspect’s financial documents, such as bank records or tax returns
  • issuing grand jury subpoenas for testimony and documents
  • executing search warrants and analyzing the materials obtained, such as computers and smart phones
  • conducting witness interviews and proffer sessions.

How do I know if I am under federal investigation?

A federal investigation can take years before any federal criminal charges are filed and tend to be conducted in secret.  It is not uncommon for individuals to have no idea they are even under federal investigation until one of the following happens:

  • A federal prosecutor formally notifies you that you are the target of an investigation through a target letter.
  • A federal law enforcement agent contacts you by phone and asks for a meeting.
  • Federal agents show up unannounced at your home or place of business and try to interrogate you.
  • Federal agents execute a search warrant at your home or place of business.
  • You receive a grand jury subpoena requiring you to testify or provide documents.

What does it mean if I receive a grand jury subpoena?

If you receive a grand jury subpoena, you are considered to be either a witness, a subject or a target of a federal investigation.  It is crucial to understand your status in a federal investigation to know whether or not you will be charged with a federal crime.

  • Witness: Being a witness in a federal investigation does not necessarily mean that you observed or saw a crime happen. You may have information that law enforcement believes might be relevant in a criminal investigation to help prove either the guilt or the innocence of another individual or business.
  • Subject:  A “subject of an investigation” is a person who has engaged in conduct that may look suspicious or unethical, but the prosecutor isn’t certain that a provable crime has been committed and wants to do more investigating in order to be sure.
  • Target:  A “target of an investigation” is a person who the prosecutor has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime. Designation as a "target" provides a clear warning to the person that federal criminal charges are imminent.

What if federal agents try to speak with me?

DO NOT speak with federal agents without first speaking with a knowledgeable and experienced federal criminal defense attorney.  You are under no obligation to make any statements to federal agents and anything you say or write can be used against you.

If you are implicated in a federal investigation, especially as a target of the investigation, you should obtain legal representation immediately.

Get help from an experienced federal investigation attorney.   

Attorney Ann Fitz frequently represents people who have become involved in federal criminal investigations. These individuals have been targets, subjects, or witnesses in an investigation.

In many cases, Ann Fitz can resolve federal investigations or her clients discreetly without federal criminal charges being filed. When criminal charges are inevitable, she makes sure her clients are in the best position possible to defend against those charges when they are filed.

You can talk to Attorney Ann Fitz in a free initial consultation at her firm’s West Palm Beach office. Call 561-932-1690 or send her an email to schedule your consultation.