Federal Investigations

How Do I Know if I am under Investigation?

Learning that you’re under investigation by the federal government can be frightening. A person typically learns they are under investigation in one of five ways:

1. A federal agent may try to speak with you.

Sometimes they’ll simply call you. More often, an agent will knock on your door. 

It may be someone from the F.B.I., the I.R.S., Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), or any one of the many other federal law enforcement agencies.

If you aren’t home, the agent may leave a business card with his or her phone number on it, asking you to call them.

2. You are served with a subpoena.

You may get a subpoena to provide documents to a federal grand jury or testify before a federal grand jury.

This is especially common in white-collar criminal cases.

3. You get a letter from an AUSA.

You may get a letter from an Assistant United States Attorney telling you that you are under federal investigation.

This is called a “target letter.”

4. You get a knock on your door.

Federal agents may come to your house with a search warrant or with a grand jury subpoena.

If they come, they will come early, and then they will come knocking on your door.

5. Someone else tells you.

You may hear about an investigation from others, such as your friends or business colleagues, who may also be under investigation.

Should I talk to the feds?

If federal agents come knocking on your door, or call you, you should politely decline to talk with them and explain that you would like to contact a lawyer first. You should do this even if you are completely innocent or feel you did nothing wrong. Federal agents are trained to get people to talk to them, making them feel comfortable. The agent or agents may say you are merely a witness, or they are not there to arrest you.

But beware, they may be setting you up to catch you off guard. Or they may take what you say out of context, later suggesting that what you said was somehow incriminating evidence of guilt.  

So, it is best to first consult with a federal criminal defense attorney before talking with the feds, to make sure all your rights are protected. You have a constitutional right not to incriminate yourself and a constitutional right to a lawyer. You should invoke both those rights, again, just to make sure you are protected. The agents would do the same if they ever came under investigation.

How long can federal investigations last?

White collar criminal investigations can last a long time. They typically last weeks or months, and even years for the more complex and complicated cases. In fact, the investigations can last for the length of time of the statute of limitations.

For most federal cases, the statute of limitations is five years. But there are longer, and even shorter limitations periods for many types of federal cases. For instance, a federal tax evasion charge can be brought within six years of the last date of the offense.

It may sound simplistic, but the investigation will last for as long as the federal authorities take to complete their investigation and get to the point of determining whether or not to pursue charges. And, the most it can last is for the length of the applicable statute of limitations.

How do I know if I’m out of the woods?

The only sure way to know that a person will not be charged is if the statute of limitations for the particular federal crime expires before a person is charged. Under those circumstances, the government can’t charge. If the government nevertheless does charge, an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer will know how to file a motion to dismiss the charges based on the expiration of the limitations period.

Even if the statute of limitations period hasn’t yet expired, there are times when the government will notify the person or their lawyer that they will not be charged. For instance, this can happen where you start out as a subject of the investigation, but the government decides to instead use you as a witness against others and not charge you. Notification can also come when the investigating agent or Assistant United States Attorney is convinced that they do not have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you have committed a crime, or are convinced that you did nothing wrong or didn’t do enough to warrant a federal charge.

What can a federal criminal defense attorney do to help me?

If you are under federal investigation for a white-collar crime, a federal criminal defense lawyer can help in many ways.

First, they can reach out to the investigating agent or Assistant U.S. Attorney to learn your status: whether you are a target, witness, or subject of the investigation. That information will help determine how best to proceed.

Second, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help protect your constitutional rights, such as your right not to incriminate yourself, your right to a lawyer, which includes the attorney-client privilege for communications between you and your lawyer, and the rights against unreasonable searches and seizures and to a fair trial.

Third, an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can work to convince the investigating agent or Assistant U.S. Attorney that you did nothing wrong, or at least that there is no proof of that. This advocacy on your behalf can be done in many ways: through meetings and calls with the government, through providing documents and other information that shows that they are “barking up the wrong tree,” and at times letters and other written materials, explaining why they should not pursue charges against you.

In the end, an experienced federal criminal defense attorney can protect your interests, help you through a stressful, at times terrifying situation, and make sure that things work out as well as possible.