Criminal Defense

How Do Federal Criminal Investigations Work?

December 17, 2021 by Chistian Bredefeld in Criminal Defense  
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The First Part of the Process

A federal criminal investigation is the first of many parts of what is known as the Federal Criminal Process.

This first part involves investigating federal crimes, usually conducted by federal agents. Some examples of such federal agencies would be the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), or the United States Secret Services (USSS).

There are several common ways that such investigations usually begin, which will be discussed in more detail below.

For example, an agent may be “tipped off” by a defendant in another unrelated case in which the defendant informs the agent that someone else committed a federal crime. A defendant may do this to cooperate with the agency in hopes of getting a reduced sentence for their own case.

Sometimes the investigation will involve federal agents working in conjunction with state or local agencies and a federal prosecutor, depending on the circumstances of the particular crime or facts of the case.

The federal criminal investigation can last a very long time. Essentially, during the investigation phase, the goals of the agent are as follows:

  1. To find out if a crime has occurred;
  2. To learn which person or persons committed the crime; and
  3. To figure out what credible evidence exists (direct or circumstantial) to demonstrate the crime has been committed.

Discussed more fully below, investigations can occur because the agents consider you as one of three things:

  1. a target;
  2. a subject; or
  3. a mere witness.

The agents and prosecutors ultimately seek to bring a federal indictment that results in a criminal conviction. While each case is generally different, once the evidence is collected and the agents and the federal prosecutor believe a crime has been committed by you, an arrest will typically be made. At that point, the federal prosecutor will file formal federal criminal charges.

While this whole process is serious and should not be taken lightly, you are in severe trouble once an arrest has been made and charges filed.

At that particular stage, the federal agents and prosecutors believe two things:

  1. you committed the crime, and
  2. they have enough evidence to convict you in a court of law.

Suppose you are involved in a federal criminal investigation. In that case, you need an experienced federal criminal defense attorney to assist you immediately.

A professional and knowledgeable attorney can help protect your interests at every step of the process, hopefully ending up with an outcome of no arrests made or criminal charges filed.

Moreover, whether you are guilty or not of committing a federal crime, an attorney can still work to protect your rights from being violated and ensure that you receive the best outcome possible. This outcome may include no arrests being made or any charges being filed. If charges are brought, an attorney can help to have them reduced or possibly dismissed entirely.

What is Federal Criminal Investigation?

A Federal Criminal Investigation occurs when federal agents investigate you because they believe you have committed a federal crime. This is the first of many steps in the federal criminal justice process.

Federal agencies, such as the FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), utilize criminal investigators to assist them in determining whether or not federal crimes have been committed. These investigators work with federal prosecutors and collect evidence and information to provide the United States Attorneys in their respective districts for criminal prosecutions. 

When Does a Federal Criminal Investigation Begin?

There are several ways a federal criminal investigation may begin, which include the following:

  1. A formal criminal report is filed, triggering an investigation;
  2. Agents may receive information or be “tipped off” by defendants in other criminal matters that are pending. This often occurs because the defendants hope that they may negotiate more lenient sentences by “cooperating” with the agents. These defendants are called “cooperators”;
  3. Information that has been gathered by a federal agency, such as the CIA, may trigger an investigation if it is determined a crime may have been committed;
  4. Other information may be given to federal agents by third parties, such as co-workers, friends, business partners or associates, and family members. This information might be used to begin a federal criminal investigation;
  5. Suppose a parallel civil investigation has begun from a regulatory agency like the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). In that case, a federal criminal investigation may start if it is suspected that a federal crime has been committed. 
  6. A federal sting is usually one way the federal investigation begins, as is a wide-scope investigation.

Parties Involved in a Federal Criminal Investigation

As mentioned above, law enforcement agents, like those in the CIA or FBI, are primarily involved in the initial investigation. They typically gather most of the evidence and information through various means, discussed in more detail below. They work closely with a federal prosecutor, who can assist them with obtaining whatever legal documents might help them in their investigation, such as subpoenas or search warrants.

Moreover, it is not uncommon for federal agents to also work with state or local agencies in a joint investigation. This might occur when a sizeable white-collar crime has been committed or if the crime involves a violent transnational gang.  

Evidence Collection

These types of investigations are very serious and often involve long periods of time. In fact, you may not know for years that you are the subject of a criminal investigation.

During this time, the agents gather as much evidence as possible, and they often can do this without your knowledge. They have the power to use many methods to get this information.

Some techniques they use are as follows:

  1. Conducting surveillance of you, often without your knowledge. This can last a long time, including several months;
  2. Wiretapping your phone;
  3. Monitoring your activity online, such as with your computer;
  4. Recording conversations if one party has given their consent. (For example, someone you work with could consent to wear a “wire” for the FBI so that the FBI can monitor their conversations to assist in an investigation;
  5. After obtaining a search warrant, they can execute the search warrant to obtain and analyze items such as your phone or specific documents;
  6. Conduct interviews with potential witnesses;
  7. Review essential documents relating to your finances, such as your tax returns or bank records;
  8. They may arrive unexpectedly at your door to catch you off-guard and conduct an interview or question you. (As advised below, you should never consent to this without a lawyer present to protect your rights and interests).

Knowing When You Are Under Investigation

It may be difficult to know if you are under investigation. Often, investigations have been going on for months and years before you may be questioned by law enforcement or notified that you are under investigation. Here are some examples as to when you might realize you are under investigation:

  1. A “target letter” will be given to you, either directly or through the mail, where a federal prosecutor formally advises you that you are the target of an investigation;
  2. You may be contacted directly by a law enforcement agent where they ask you on the phone for a meeting;
  3. A federal agent may show up at a place they know you will be to interrogate you without any notice; for example, they may arrive unexpectedly at your home or business;
  4. Third parties advise you that federal agents have interviewed them in regards to activities you may have engaged in, such as members of your family, your co-workers, colleagues, or friends;
  5. Your home or business is searched by federal agents pursuant to a search warrant;
  6. You may be subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury and asked to provide documents at the time of your testimony.

Some of these events can coincide or happen at the same time. For example, a federal agent can search your home pursuant to a search warrant, ask you questions about the crime at the time of the search, and then give you a target letter prepared by a federal prosecutor. In addition, your business partner may call you later the same day to advise you that federal agents interviewed them about your connection to the alleged crime.

Because of the serious nature of these particular investigations, it is imperative that you speak with an attorney immediately if you suspect you are under investigation. An experienced attorney will ensure that your Constitutional rights are not violated, for example, through an illegal or improper search and seizure. Each case is different, and there are various strategies lawyers can use to ensure the best legal approach is used for your defense.

In addition, the attorney will be in the best position to make sure your civil rights are not violated; if they are, they may be able to exclude specific evidence and may be able to help negotiate a plea deal so that you do not have to go to court or trial. In addition, the attorney may provide the federal agents or the prosecutor with missing critical information that tends to demonstrate or prove your innocence. Thus, it is essential that you do not speak to federal law enforcement agents without an attorney present.

Federal law enforcement agents are experts at using tactics to confuse you or “trip you up.” Even innocent statements by innocent people can be taken out of context by a federal prosecutor in court so that they ultimately appear incriminating.  


  1. An FBI agent comes to your house unannounced to ask about your potential involvement in a fraudulent scheme involving your business. You are a financial adviser, and the agent tells you the SEC is investigating you for money laundering, and he wants to ask you questions. Assuming the agent does not have a search warrant, you should politely decline to talk with him and immediately contact an experienced federal criminal defense attorney. Assume also you are entirely innocent and want to explain why you are innocent. DON’T! As stated above, even innocent comments can later be taken out of context in a court of law. Instead of explaining yourself, which you may be tempted to do, do not give the agent any information. Instead, when he leaves, contact an attorney as soon as possible;
  2. Assume the same facts as above; however, the agent has a search warrant to search your home office and seize your computer. You can let the agent search your office. After the agent searches your home office, he hands you a target letter prepared by a federal prosecutor advising that you are the target of an investigation. He wants to ask you questions about the alleged crime. You can politely refuse to answer questions. When the agent leaves, you should immediately contact an attorney for the same reasons outlined above;
  3. Assume that a federal agent contacts you by phone to discuss your possible involvement in a health care fraud scheme. You should politely refuse to answer the questions. You should immediately contact an attorney. Deciding whether to speak with the federal government regarding their questioning of you related to federal criminal activity cannot be taken lightly. A federal defense attorney will determine whether it is in your best interests to meet with the federal agents or even negotiate with them as to what line of questioning they can and cannot ask you;
  4. Assume you have been subpoenaed to testify or asked to provide documents before a grand jury in connection with a federal crime. You should contact an attorney immediately. The attorney will assess the facts and circumstances of your particular case and advise you of your potential rights, including the right to assert your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In addition, an attorney may be able to talk with the prosecutor and significantly limit the scope of what is asked of you to produce in documents; in addition, the attorney can advise you as to what types of documents you do not have to produce during your testimony.


Defending Your Interests During a Federal Criminal Investigation

As advised above, it is critical that you obtain an experienced federal criminal defense attorney as soon as you become aware that you are under federal criminal investigation or as soon as you become aware that federal agents want to speak with you in connection to a crime. An attorney will help with many aspects of this criminal justice process, including determining whether you are the direct target of the investigation or a subject or witness of the investigation.

An attorney can often help resolve the issues before any formal federal criminal charges are filed, or any arrests are made.

For example, suppose it becomes clear that criminal charges cannot be avoided. In that case, a defense attorney is in the best position to analyze the particular facts of your case and determine the best legal strategy for your defense. 


We Want to Help

If you are under federal criminal investigation in the Los Angeles area, contact us today for a free consultation. Your freedom depends on finding an experienced defense attorney immediately.

The sooner you reach out, the sooner we can work on your legal defense which may involve avoiding an arrest or charges being filed. Assuming charges have already been filed, an experienced defense attorney can potentially have your case drastically reduced or dismissed entirely.

If you or a loved one is under a federal criminal investigation, we invite you to contact us immediately for a free case review.

Need a Criminal Defense Attorney? CALL NOW: 310-274-6529

Seppi Esfandi is an Expert Criminal Defense Attorney who has over 20 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.

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How to Win Your Case

We cannot stress enough that you read, understand and follow these 10 basic rules if you are criminally charged or under investigation:

  1. Don’t ever talk to the police
  2. Do not discuss your case with anyone
  3. Everything you tell your lawyer is confidential
  4. Tell police you need to contact your attorney
  5. Never consent to any search by the police
  6. If the police knock on your door, don't answer!
  7. Realize the consequences of a criminal conviction
  8. Your lawyer (not you) will contact any witnesses
  9. Information on your cell phone is evidence
  10. Early Intervention is the key

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