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Understanding how federal criminal cases are carried out

Thanks to television and film, most of us have certain images that automatically come to mind when we hear terms like federal crime, federal prosecution and, of course federal investigation. These images could be everything from courtroom sketches of dour defendants standing before an imposing judge, federal agents carrying file boxes out of an establishment and, of course, the infamous "perp walk."

While there's nothing inaccurate about any of this, it's important to understand that these images are part of a much bigger process, a process that begins with an investigation.

Indeed, in any federal criminal case, the first step will be a comprehensive investigation designed to gather and supply U.S. Attorneys in their respective districts with the necessary evidence of the crime in question. 

While these investigations are frequently undertaken by such household names as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, they can also be conducted by less familiar entities, including the U.S. Secret Service and Homeland Security Investigation.

Most federal investigations will require a search of a home or other privately owned property to be undertaken in order to secure evidence. As such, federal agents must take steps to ensure that they don't run afoul of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against illegal searches and seizures, meaning they'll need to secure a search warrant.

This search warrant, in turn, must be supported by probable cause and secured from a "neutral and detached" federal judge. Any failure on the part of federal law enforcement to take this crucial step will likely result in the evidence gathered in furtherance of their investigation being suppressed or, in other words, being declared inadmissible in court.  

Once an investigation is completed, the entirety of the evidence will be handed over to the federal prosecutor, who will examine everything presented to determine whether the government should present the case to a federal grand jury.

We'll examine more about federal grand juries in a future post …

In the meantime, if you learn that you are under investigation for any type of federal crime, consider speaking with a skilled legal professional as soon as possible who can outline your options and get to work protecting your rights.  

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Mark J. O'Brien's cases have been featured in:
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