Some types of federal crimes?

  • Drug trafficking – This is the most common type of federal case. Ex. drug conspiracy charges.
  • Immigration violations
  • Serious gun charges
  • Smuggling and trafficking in persons – Trafficking is the third largest crime in the world.
  • National security matters
  • Corruption
  • Cybercrime on the Internet – Including charges of identity theft on the Internet.
  • Child pornography charges
  • Kidnapping
  • Murder
  • White collar crimes – ex. bank fraud, visa fraud or other credit card fraud, mail and wire fraud, money laundering, federal mortgage fraud, federal tax crimes, conspiracy, cybercrime or counterfeiting.

When is a federal crime committed?

If a person is charged with a federal crime, it means that she/he has allegedly violated the United States Code. There are more than 100 crimes classified as federal crimes under Title 18 of the Code.

In many cases, however, the crimes (such as certain drug-related crimes) will be prosecutable at both the federal and state levels.

What factors can determine if a federal crime was committed?

Regardless of the crime, certain factors determine whether a crime is federal. Those factors are:

  • The person crossed state lines;
  • The crime took place on federal land;
  • The crime involved a federal official;
  • Customs and immigration violation; and/or
  • The offense violated the U.S. Code.

Any crime that meets the above criteria will be prosecuted in federal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Which agencies are in charge of investigating the crime?

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – Federal criminal investigation agency serving as intelligence agency for the U.S. Department of Justice. Examples of crimes under its jurisdiction: Computer crime, kidnapping, murder/manslaughter, rape, mail fraud and bank fraud.
  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) – Works against drug smuggling domestically in the U.S. and abroad. Examples of federal drug charges that would fall under its jurisdiction: drug trafficking/delivery/importation, drug manufacture, and possession of a controlled substance.
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – Has extensive investigative powers and the ability to file criminal complaints or civil forfeiture of assets.
  • Office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) – Agency that investigates and attempts to prevent federal crimes involving weapons and drug trafficking. It focuses on crimes that involve the illegal use, manufacture or possession of weapons and explosives. Arson and bombings also fall under the investigative jurisdiction of the ATF. It also regulates tobacco and alcohol by authorizing the sale and possession of these products. Federal crimes that fall under its jurisdiction will generally include the following: violent crimes, illegal possession of a weapon, illegal import or export of weapons, illegal firearms trafficking, and fraudulent permits used to obtain a weapon. Regulates the licensing of weapons along with the sale and purchase of weapons.

What is an indictment and what happens after a person is prosecuted?

Federal prosecutors may file an indictment instead of filing a complaint. To obtain an indictment, federal prosecutors must first go to the grand jury to establish probable cause. If the grand jury establishes probable cause, it issues an indictment against the person named “True Bill.” If the grand jury does not establish probable cause, it returns a “No Bill.”

Within 10 days of the indictment and arrest, the arraignment takes place. During the arraignment, the accused is read of the charges against him and informed of his rights. The accused person can plead guilty or not guilty. A date is set for the trial and a time is also selected for the hearings of motions.

How does a federal trial start?

  • Complaint / arrest warrant: A complaint is the first step prosecutors use to initiate a case. The complaint describes the allegations of the federal charge and must include the probable cause of the arrest. The arrest warrant generally includes the information from the complaint and an order from the judge allowing law enforcement to arrest the accused person.
  • Initial appearance: The purpose of the initial appearance is for the judge to ensure that there is sufficient evidence to arrest the person. The judge must inform the person of her/his basic rights. At this time, the person can either hire a lawyer or have a lawyer assigned. Bail is also set at the initial hearing.
  • Detention hearing: Must be held within 3 days of the arrest. Here the judge determines the risk of flight of the accused person or if this is a danger to the community. Depending on the decision of the judge, the accused person may be released pending trial.
  • Preliminary hearing: Occurs within 10 days of being arrested for a complaint. At this time, the federal prosecutor can offer evidence to establish probable cause, such as testimony, and the defense attorney can also provide evidence on behalf of the accused person. If the judge finds sufficient probable cause, the case is taken to the grand jury for further review.
  • Grand Jury: Makes the final decision to prosecute a federal criminal case. A federal grand jury is comprised of 23 randomly selected citizens from the judicial district.

How does a federal lawsuit end?

  • Guilty plea agreement: If a defendant pleads not guilty, the case is assigned for trial unless a plea agreement is reached between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The accused person must change to a guilty plea in order to obtain a plea agreement. After the plea agreement, the trial does not take place and the accused person goes directly to sentencing.
  • Trial: The prosecutor has the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury of randomly selected citizens must unanimously decide the verdict or outcome of the case.
  • Sentencing: After the jury finds the defendant guilty, the U.S. Probation Office collects information about the defendant and compiles it into a pre-sentencing investigative report. This report contains mitigating and aggravating factors along with sentencing recommendations for the U.S. District Court judge. Approximately 8 weeks after conviction, the judge imposes the sentence.
  • Appeal: The accused person can appeal the guilty verdict and the type of sentence imposed. The person must file a notice of appeal within 10 days of sentencing. If the accused reaches an agreement with the prosecution, she/he may have to waive her/his right to appeal.

What are the penalties for federal crimes like?

Penalties for federal crimes typically carry a much harsher sentence than state crimes. Depending on the crime, the person could be sentenced to life in federal prison and forced to pay millions of dollars in fines.

In addition to imprisonment and heavy fines, an accused person can also have their assets seized and their bank account frozen.

What is the drug trafficking?

Drug trafficking is defined as knowingly dispensing, distributing, manufacturing, or possessing with the intent to distribute or manufacture a controlled substance. In some cases, possession of large amounts of certain drugs can result in trafficking charges. Controlled substances commonly involved in drug trafficking include methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. The penalties a person faces for the crime will depend on the substance and its amount. If convicted, she could spend between five years and life in federal prison and will be required to pay fines that can range from $100,000 to $75 million.

Is child pornography a federal crime?

Child pornography is another crime that is commonly prosecuted at the federal level. The offense is defined as visual images depicting minors under 18 years of age in sexual situations for the purpose of causing sexual stimulation. This can include photos, videos, drawings, and computer-generated images. For the federal government to get involved, the crime must have taken place in interstate or foreign commerce. This may include the use of the U.S. Postal Service or other mail carriers to transport the material across state or international borders. The federal jurisdiction will also be involved if the person was caught as part of a sting operation conducted by the FBI. If the person is found guilty of the crime, he could spend up to 40 years in federal prison and will be required to register as a sex offender.

What is human trafficking?

The victims involved in the crime are bought, sold and smuggled, it is a form of modern slavery. They are often forced to work as prostitutes or take jobs in restaurants or factories for little or no pay. The extent of the penalties will depend on whether the person committed labor or sex trafficking. If convicted of labor trafficking, the person could spend up to 20 years in federal prison. However, if the crime includes kidnapping, sexual abuse, or attempted murder, the person could face life in prison. If the crime involved minors under the age of 14, the person could be sentenced to life in prison. If the trafficked persons are over the age of 14, the person could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.

What are some examples of charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)?

A RICO charge comes from a person who uses a business to launder money generated by illegal activities such as organized crime. A common example is mob activity where the mob establishes a business such as a butcher shop, but behind the scenes there is an illegal gambling operation in progress. Money earned from gambling can be put into the butcher’s balance sheet to make it look like it came from a legitimate source. Another example of a RICO charge is a bank involved in money laundering. Again, the main idea is to make money obtained from illegal sources appear to come from legitimate sources. The statute is very broad and includes mail fraud and wire fraud, which includes small businesses and individuals.