Over the last few weeks, the Tony-award winning musical Hamilton has been at the forefront of the public consciousness, as a feature-length recording of the stage performance was released on the Disney+ streaming service last month. The play presents a dramatized version of the life and political career of Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury and founder of the first political party, the Federalist Party. While the musical is not 100% historically accurate, it has created a deal of buzz about the ideals that Hamilton believed in, including the concept of a strong national government—especially as compared his political opponents at the time whose views tended toward leaving the bulk of governing powers to the individual states.
Today, over 200 years later, the same political debates largely continue. However, in most regards, there is a clearly defined hierarchy of laws to which U.S. citizens are subject. Starting at the smallest level, there are usually local and municipal ordinances, which can be superseded by city ordinances and then by county (or parish, depending on the state) regulations. Next, there are state laws, and finally, federal laws. Federal laws are created when legislative measures are passed by the United States Congress—specifically, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate—and signed by the President.
Violations of the law can be prosecuted at any level, and sometimes at more than one at the same time. However, violations of federal law are generally the most serious and carry the most severe punishments. There are a number of federal agencies with the authority to investigate possible violations of federal law. These agencies include:
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
- The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
- The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
- The Secret Service
- The Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
What Constitutes a Federal Offense?
Technically, any violation of the United States Code is prosecutable as a federal offense. Most commonly, however, federal agencies tend to get involved when suspected illegal behavior takes place on federal property—such as a National Park or a United States Courthouse—on a Native American reservation, or across state lines. The federal government retains the authority to investigate any violation of federal law, regardless of where the violation takes place, as federal jurisdiction supersedes that of local, county, and state officials.
In almost every case, federal criminal prosecution begins with an investigation by at least one federal agency. The investigation may be triggered by a singular event, such as a bank robbery or a suspected kidnapping, or federal authorities may receive piecemeal information regarding illegal activity. This type of information may come from citizen tips, police informants, or even the arrest of an individual who is willing to talk to investigators in exchange for lenience in his or her own prosecution. Most investigations begin rather quietly, as the federal agents involved utilize public records and other widely available data to establish background information about the case. If you are the target of an investigation, you will probably not even know that it is underway at this point. However, things can change quickly, which brings us to the obvious signs that you are being investigated by federal authorities.
Obvious Sign #1: Knocking
The most common indication of a federal investigation into your behavior comes when a federal agent literally knocks on your door. If any government employee shows up at your home or place of work and asks to speak with you, you are probably being investigated for some type of violation of the law. A government agent will always identify himself or herself and may appear casual and relaxed, but this does not mean that the investigation is any less serious. You should always request to have a lawyer at your side before you agree to talk with any federal investigator.
Obvious Sign #2: A Warrant
In order for a search warrant to be granted, investigators must give a federal judge enough probable cause to allow a search of your residence, vehicle, or workplace. This also means that the investigation must have been ongoing for some time to develop the information on which the probable cause is based. If federal agents show up with a search warrant, they must provide you with a copy of the warrant. Call your attorney immediately and tell him or her what is going on. You cannot do anything to stop the search, but your lawyer needs to be kept abreast of the situation.
Obvious Sign #3: A Subpoena
A subpoena can be used in an attempt to force you to testify—usually in the form of a deposition—or it can be used to obtain documents and records. In either case, a subpoena issued by a federal judge is a very good indication that an investigation is underway. It is also a sign that investigators may be getting close to their intended target.
Obvious Sign #4: Letters
While government agencies are likely to use the first three items on the list, federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office in your area often utilize target letters. A target letter will generally ask for your cooperation and request that you come and speak with the prosecutor. Under no circumstances should you agree to do so without bringing a federal criminal defense attorney with you.
The tactics and techniques that federal investigators might use will depend on the nature and scope of the alleged illegal behavior. For example, if you are a government contractor, and authorities suspect that you might be overcharging the federal government, you might start getting letters from a contracting officer. Fact requests, site visits, and audits of your business operations are also possible. These indicators are a little less obvious, but they should still cause you to question whether you are being targeted. If there is any chance that you are being investigated, it is critical to contact your lawyer immediately.
Contact a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer
There is no such thing as a minor federal offense. Federal investigators are unlikely to expend time, energy, and resources unless they believe that an indictment and eventual conviction will follow. The most important thing you can do if you become aware of an investigation is to contact an experienced Chicago federal criminal defense attorney to ensure that your rights and best interests are fully protected.
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