For many people, the criminal justice system constitutes a complex web of rules and jargon that can be difficult to understand. To make matters even more complicated, within that system there are two separate bodies of laws, some of them overlapping, enforced by two separate court systems.
Every state has a body of criminal laws that are enforced in state courts by state prosecutors (known in Pennsylvania as “district attorneys). Then there is a separate body of criminal laws, enacted by Congress and called “federal criminal laws,” that applies the same across all of the states. Federal prosecutors known as United States Attorneys prosecute violations of these laws in the federal court system, which is separate and distinct from state courts.
Even though there is a significant amount of overlap between state and federal criminal laws (both, for example, deal with drug offenses), federal criminal laws, and prosecutions of violations of those laws, are very different than their state-law counterparts. Federal criminal law is often more complex than state law, and its enforcement involves strict and complicated court processes. Federal prosecutors often show less flexibility than district attorneys. And the penalties for a federal criminal conviction can be far harsher than convictions for similar state laws.
If you are accused, arrested, or charged with a federal crime in the Philadelphia area, your rights and freedom are at serious risk. Do not wait to seek experienced criminal legal representation. Contact the Zeiger Firm right away.
What Are Federal Crimes?
Federal crimes refer to offenses that violate federal laws. As noted above, some types of federal crimes also constitute violations of state criminal laws. However, some crimes are unique to the federal criminal legal system. Some examples of areas of federal criminal enforcement include:
Crimes Related to Exclusive Federal Jurisdiction
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution grants the federal government sole authority over certain issues, such as regulating money, the Postal Service, immigration, bankruptcy, and patents. Therefore, the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over criminal violations that fall within these issues.
The Taxing and Spending Clause of Article I, Section 8, and the Sixteenth Amendment gives Congress has constitutional authority over federal taxation, which gives rise to cases such as federal tax evasion.
Crimes Committed on Federal Property
City, county, and state governments have direct authority over criminal matters in most areas of the country. However, the federal Criminal Code includes provisions for offenses that occur in areas that fall within federal authority. Locations governed by federal criminal law include Native American reservations (though tribes have some degree of jurisdiction over lesser offenses), U.S. National Parks, federal courthouses, federal prisons, and the District of Columbia. In some situations, the federal government has temporary authority, such as cases involving ships at sea and airplanes in flight.
Crimes With an Interstate Component
Where federal and state crimes overlap, most of the time it’s in connection with crimes that cross state lines, such as drug trafficking. When a criminal act involves an essential component that crosses state lines (even virtually, as in internet crimes), it is sometimes nothing more than chance that determines whether a person face federal or state charges.
Examples of Federal Crimes
Crimes frequently prosecuted by federal prosecutors in federal court include:
- Drug trafficking;
- Child exploitation offenses (such as child pornography crimes);
- Felony firearms possession;
- Mail or credit card fraud;
- Organized crime;
- Financial crimes;
- Large-scale fraud;
- Computer crimes;
- Crimes committed against federal officials; and
- Fraud against the United States of America (such as Medicare fraud).
This is a partial list. The scope of federal criminal law is wide and varied.
Who Investigates Federal Crimes?
Many federal agencies have been granted powers to investigate federal offenses. Organizations that frequently investigate federal crimes include:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which investigates allegations of cybercrime, kidnapping, mail fraud, credit card fraud, and bank fraud.
- Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which investigates crimes such as trafficking of tobacco, alcohol, and weapons.
- Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which is responsible for inhibiting drug trafficking within the United States of America.
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS) investigates violations of the Internal Revenue Code. Other federal agencies also have investigative jurisdiction for certain banking and money laundering cases.
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is primarily responsible for enforcing laws related to federal immigration. Its investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is the second-largest investigative agency in the United States after the FBI, and yet most people have never even heard of it, and has broad jurisdiction that sometimes seems to have limited relevance to immigration.
- Secret Service – Although we tend to think of the Secret Service in connection with protecting the president, it was originally created to combat the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. Secret service agents investigate financial crimes, including counterfeiting, credit and debit card fraud, theft of U.S. Government securities, and certain other crimes affecting federally insured financial institutions.
If the investigating agency decides that the suspect committed a crime, in some cases, federal law enforcement officers may not need a warrant to arrest a suspect. In some circumstances, they may delay an arrest until they have additional evidence.
Usually, a federal investigation is a slow process. Unless someone is in imminent danger, federal agencies generally take a long time to investigate federal crimes. Federal investigators may ask questions regarding the investigation, but if you do not know exactly what the investigation is about, it is best to be very cautious in how you answered, or have an experienced attorney to guide you.
Even if you’re not the object of the investigation, an attorney should be present to protect your rights during questioning and may be able to determine why the authorities are questioning you.
Remember that lying to a federal agent is a crime punishable by jail time and/or fines. Federal investigators usually have more resources than a state prosecutor’s office so that they can conduct a prolonged and in-depth investigation. Being questioned by federal agents may be intimidating, but certain basic considerations still govern federal investigators. For example, if you are arrested, they must read you the Miranda rights.
Overview of the Federal Criminal System
Being involved in a federal criminal case can be unnerving, so it helps to know as much as you can about the process. The U.S. Attorney (the prosecutor) represents the United States in most court proceedings, including criminal matters. United States Attorneys enforce federal law within a certain geographic district. Individual attorneys within this system are called Assistant United States Attorneys. United States Attorneys work with federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, to investigate cases of alleged federal crime.
A Federal criminal case can begin one of two ways—with the filing of a criminal complaint or of an indictment. The first step in the legal process is a complaint. The complaint states the reasons for the charge. An indictment is a formal criminal charge against an individual or entity handed up by a Grand Jury. A grand jury consists of a group of citizens. They determine whether there is enough evidence, or probable cause, to bring criminal charges to trial.
Probable cause means that there are reasonable grounds for believing that an accusation is well-founded. It is a secret proceeding. If the Grand Jury finds reasonable cause to believe a crime was committed and the accused person committed it, they vote an indictment. The US Attorney’s Office prepares the document and presents it to the court. By Federal law, once the authorities file an indictment, and the defendant is aware of it, the case must proceed to trial within 70 days.
In a criminal trial, the defendant does not have to prove his or her innocence. Instead, the burden of proof is on the government. The standard of proof in a criminal trial gives the prosecutor a much greater burden than the plaintiff in a civil trial. The defendant must be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which means the evidence must be so strong that there is no reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.
Many people plead guilty instead of going to trial. They may do this in exchange for some form of consideration from the government. If the defendant is convicted, he or she is sentenced by the judge, usually according to the federal sentencing guidelines. The convicted defendant is not entitled to a jury punishment hearing.
What Happens if You Are Charged With a Federal Criminal Offense?
There are many steps involved with a federal criminal case. Because each case is unique, the steps vary. Critical steps in the federal criminal process include “investigation, charging, initial hearing/arraignment, discovery, plea bargaining, preliminary hearing, pre-trial motions, trial, post-trial motion, sentencing, and appeal.”
If the defendant is convicted, he or she may choose to appeal. The defendant must file a Notice of Appeal within ten days after being sentenced. However, in some cases, the defendant chooses to enter into a plea deal. It is important to consult an experienced federal defense attorney before entering into a plea deal. Some plea deals mean that the defendant gives up the right to appeal.
The Statutes of Limitations of Federal Crimes
The statute of limitations sets a maximum time after an event within which a crime can be legally prosecuted. For example, if someone commits a crime with a ten-year statute, that individual cannot be prosecuted for that crime after that ten year period is up. The statute of limitations for federal crimes varies. Some federal crimes have no statute of limitations. These include:
- Federal crimes that are punishable by the death penalty
- Certain federal crimes of terrorism
- Certain federal sex offenses
Many federal crimes have a five-year statute of limitations. However, exceptions to the five-year limitation apply in some cases, such as:
- Certain immigration offenses
- Art theft
- Various crimes against financial institutions
- There are other exceptions for cases involving special circumstances
The Penalties for Federal Crimes
For a variety of reasons, people accused of committing federal crimes often plead guilty. Research shows that more than 90 percent of federal cases end with a plea bargain, instead of a trial. Those who plead guilty usually enter into a plea bargain, which may offer a reduced charge, reduced sentence, or some other form of leniency.
If the defendant pleads guilty or is convicted following a trial, the judge determines the sentence by following federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines take into account certain factors, such as the nature of the crime, the level of the offense, and the defendant’s criminal record. The judge may also take into account all of the evidence put forth at trial and all additional relevant information.
A mandatory minimum is a minimum sentence for certain offenses. The courts often enforce these mandatory minimums in drug-related federal offenses, such as manufacturing, selling, trafficking, or cultivating controlled substances across state or national borders.
Sentences for federal crimes vary widely. Penalties may include paying restitution to the victim of the crime, paying a fine, imprisonment, probation, drug testing, and mandatory counseling.
Are You Under Investigation or Charged With a Federal Crime? Call The Zeiger Firm Now
Sometimes it is difficult to know whether you are being investigated for involvement in a federal crime. However, if you, your family or your business associates have been questioned by federal agents, your home or business have been searched, or you have received a letter indicating that you are under investigation, you should be concerned. However, investigations do not always lead to charges. In any case, the whole process can be frightening and overwhelming.
If you or someone you love are under federal investigation or has been arrested for a federal crime, you need to speak with an experienced Philadelphia federal criminal lawyer. You should consult an attorney as soon as possible. At The Zeiger Firm, we will guide you through the system and fight for your rights each step of the way. For more information, or to schedule a consultation, contact us or call (215) 546-0340.