What should I do if I am under investigation for a federal crime?

If you believe you are being investigated by federal authorities, you might have a lot of questions. You could be unclear on what these investigators are after, or even what federal agency is involved in your case.

The steps you take after you learn you are under investigation could impact the case against you. It is possible that you could work toward clearing your name. Unfortunately, there is also the potential for you to make matters worse by cooperating with the government.  Going it alone without the experience of a veteran board certified criminal defense could be the difference of losing your freedom.

An attorney experienced in defending federal offenses could advise you on how to proceed while under investigation. Houston-based criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy has extensive experience taking on the federal government and will serve as your advocate during this challenging time.

Signs of a Federal Investigation

Before you can respond to a federal investigation, it helps to know for certain if the federal government is investigating you. In some cases, you could receive formal notice of an investigation. In many, however, you may only hear of rumors that an investigation has begun.

There are many reasons why you might be under federal investigation. Anyone allegedly involved in federal crimes could be under surveillance as part of a larger criminal investigation. The most common example of this would drug-related crimes.

In many cases, federal investigations involve contractors and entities with a formal relationship with the government. This relationship could lead to anything from routine auditing to active fraud investigations.

It is important to note that in many cases the federal government's interest in you might not be related to something you are involved with. It is common for federal investigators to reach out to friends, family, and associates of those they are investigating. This could result in an FBI agent's business card in your door, even if you are not the direct target of their interest.

Given the wide range of criminal charges the federal government can bring, it should come as no surprise that there is an equally large number of ways they could place you under investigation. Below are some common signs an investigation has already begun.

  • Direct contact. Many federal investigators will contact you directly for a statement. This could involve a phone call or an unexpected home visit.
  • Subject of a search warrant. For sensitive cases, the first time you receive notice of an investigation could be when you are served with a search warrant. The same is true if you are issued a subpoena.
  • Formal letter. Federal investigators could send you a vague letter requesting your cooperation. In many cases, these letters are designed to appear as if you are a witness instead of a subject.
  • Formal communication. If you are a federal contractor, receiving questions in writing or other formal communication that is typically handled informally, it could be a sign of a formal investigation.
  • Questions from friends. These investigators often contact the subject of an investigation's friends or family first. If your friends or family report that investigators questioned them about you, it is likely you are under investigation.

If your instincts tell you that you are facing a federal investigation, the chances are good that you are. You do not have to wait until you are formally contacted or arrested before you seek legal counsel. The sooner you speak to an attorney about potentially defending against the federal case, the sooner they can get to work on your defense.

Entities Involved in Federal Investigations

There are hundreds of federal departments, agencies, and offices that have investigative power. Some of the most common examples are discussed below.

Department of Justice

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is one of the largest federal departments operating under the executive branch. This department oversees law enforcement on the federal level, and may of the other entities on this list fall under the DOJ umbrella.

The DOJ can investigate any federal crime and often assists in investigations on the state level when their help is requested. The DOJ is frequently at the forefront of cases with national or political implications.

Drug Enforcement Agency

The Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, is a law enforcement agency within the DOJ. The DEA primarily focuses its effort on crimes related to the trafficking and distribution of drugs across state lines. The DEA frequently collaborates with other agencies. For example, DEA agents routinely work with immigration officials in cases that involve controlled substances crossing the border.

DEA investigations are typically covert. They will make extensive use of state and local law enforcement to funnel tips and act as undercover agents. While you might have suspicions, it is exceedingly unlikely for the DEA to announce their investigation to you.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) serves dual roles. It is the primary law enforcement agency within the federal government. It is also a domestic intelligence agency operating within the borders of the United States.

The FBI – much like the DOJ – has jurisdiction in a wide range of federal crimes. They also assist state and local law enforcement upon request. In addition to domestic criminal investigations, The FBI also serves as a counter-terrorism unit.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives was founded in 1972. Initially, a division of the IRS, the ATF has since become its own bureau within the Department of Justice. The jurisdiction of the ATF is fairly broad. Their primary mission has always been efforts to investigate federal crimes related to the unlawful use, possession, or manufacture of firearms or explosives. The ATF also regulates and polices the possession, sale, or manufacture of ammunition or explosive devices.

Outside of these arms-related offenses, the ATF also routinely investigates cases involving the sale of alcohol or tobacco products. This could include the unlawful sale of these substances or efforts to evade federal taxes on alcohol or tobacco.

The ATF also assists other agencies in a number of instances. Specifically, the bureau has departments related to investigating arson and bombing cases.

Internal Revenue Service

Although formerly known as the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has existed in one form or another since 1862. The office was created to initiate an income tax in order to pay for the Civil War. The IRS is the primary driver of funding for the federal government in modern times.

In addition to their tax collecting duties, the IRS also contains its own branch of law enforcement known as the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation division. Often referred to as IRS-CI, this agency investigates violations of the Internal Revenue Code. In addition to their exclusive jurisdiction over Revenue Code violations, the IRS-CI also investigates acts of money laundering and bank secrecy act violations.

In many cases, an IRS investigation will come as no surprise. These investigations often follow audits in which the IRS requests your cooperation. While you might have prior warning of this type of investigation, the same is unlikely to be true in cases of money laundering.

Securities and Exchange Commission

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is an independent federal agency. Unlike many of the law enforcement agencies mentioned above, the SEC does not fall under the jurisdiction of the DOJ.

The SEC regulates the securities industry, which includes policing the industry for violations of federal securities law. The SEC was originally created in 1933 and exists to regulate the industry that trades stocks and options.

The Enforcement Division of the SEC is responsible for criminal investigations into security law violations. It is common for the SEC to investigate these violations quietly. To compel documents, however, the SEC will need to formally initiate an investigation. The SEC has no power to prosecute these crimes but forwards its cases to the DOJ or state prosecutors.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Responsible for enforcing immigration laws and customs regulations, ICE also investigates cases of human trafficking and terrorism.

There are two separate investigative arms of ICE. The first targets homeland security operations, while the second centers around enforcing immigration laws and removing undocumented immigrants. Which of these two arms might be investigating you depends on the nature of the crime.

Any investigation of homeland security cases is likely to be kept tight-lipped. While the same is often true for enforcement and removal cases, ICE will announce some large-scale operations ahead of time.

Office of Investigations

The Office of Investigations (OI) is the investigative authority under the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. This office largely focuses on internal investigations into IRS practices. The OI is more than an auditor, however, as they investigate anything from fraud to mismanagement.

The OI also investigates external threats to the IRS. Their jurisdiction covers any attempt to corrupt, bribe, threaten or interfere with an IRS employee. These investigations target efforts to obstruct the IRS or avoid a tax bill using corruption.

The OI also investigates specific accusations of fraud or other criminal behavior against IRS employees. The scope of OI jurisdiction is fairly limited, especially compared to other federal authorities.

Four Things to do When Under Federal Investigation

If you know you are under investigation or are merely concerned it could be a possibility, there are certain proactive steps you can take to protect yourself. Regardless of the branch of law enforcement involved in your case, following a few careful steps could protect during a federal investigation. These steps include:

  1. Be careful of what you say. It may be unlikely for the federal government to tap your phone or surveil you, but treating every conversation like they might be could save you trouble down the line. Be mindful of the communication you make, and imagine what it would sound like if it was ever played in court.
  2. Be careful who you speak to. Not only should you be cautious of what you say, but you should also take care of who you say it to. Federal investigators routinely seek out cooperation from friends and their targets. When speaking with another person, do so with the idea that they could be reporting back to investigators.
  3. Do not answer questions from law enforcement. In many cases, state or local authorities could work in conjunction with federal investigators. Do not cooperate with them or discuss your case whatsoever without first contact an attorney.
  4. Speak with a lawyer. Investigators are specially trained to elicit information from you, but your attorney could serve as your advocate when dealing with them. Your attorney could contact investigators directly without you putting yourself at additional risk.

Mistakes to Avoid When you Suspect you are being Investigated

When taking careful, decisive action, you could improve your chances of avoiding criminal charges when under federal investigation. Alternatively, certain mistakes could increase your chances of a conviction. By avoiding the following mistakes, you could avoid making your case worse or even facing additional criminal charges.

  • Do not destroy evidence. Even if you believe the destruction of documents or other evidence could improve your chances at trial, you should never destroy evidence related to your case. Destroying evidence could lead to additional criminal charges.
  • Do not tell witnesses to lie. Asking a witness to lie for you or even omit important information is another bad idea. This type of behavior could result in a charge of obstruction of justice.
  • Do not take on the government alone. When you are under investigation, there could be dozens or even hundreds of federal employees working against. Teams of lawyers and investigators could be dedicating significant resources in your case. An experienced defense attorney could help even the playing field.

How a Houston Federal Defense Lawyer Could Help

If you believe you are under federal investigation in Houston, do not wait until you have been placed under arrest to call an attorney. By contacting Board Certified Criminal Defense Attorney Doug Murphy immediately, you could put yourself in the best position possible should an investigation result in federal charges. To learn more, schedule a free case evaluation with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.

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