Federal criminal defense lawyers defend individuals that may have committed a violation of a federal statute or the Constitution of the United States.
Although that may appear like a straightforward statement, the federal system is very different from the state criminal system.
From how the investigation is handled to how a sentence is decided, all aspect of the federal system is unique.
A federal criminal trial is very different from a state criminal case from investigation through sentencing.
I. How are federal investigations conducted?
As a pretrial stage, a federal investigation is an initial step in the federal criminal justice process.
In this juncture, federal law enforcement agents are investigating potential violations of the federal legislation.
The goal of this step is to determine whether a federal crime has been committed, who is responsible for it and if there is any evidence of the offense.
In most cases, the investigation is triggered by the filing of a solid crime report.
Sometimes, it may also start as a result of data law enforcement agents obtain from parties in unfinished criminal cases who are hoping to receive leniency.
In other cases, a federal investigation may occur from data aggregated through a federal intelligence agency, or from a parallel civil investigation conducted by a regulatory agency, such as the SEC or the FDA.
Who is involved in a federal investigation?
Agents, such as FBI special agents, hold the star players position in a federal investigation.
They conduct the bulk of the work during the survey, such as gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses.
However, they do not function alone.
A federal prosecutor will join them firmly in the case, as he supervises them and helps the agents with securing legal documents such as subpoenas and search warrants.
Furthermore, the prosecutor is the one who will decide whether to bring any formal criminal charges or not, at the end of the investigation.
How does your client found out if he is under a federal investigation?
This type of investigation ca take a very long time. In some cases, agents may investigate a case for years before bringing any federal criminal charges.
Furthermore, they tend to be handled in secret; documents and reports about the investigation can be classified; agents involved in the examination may be commanded not to debate it in public.
At this time, your client may not be even aware that he or she is under investigation until agents are knocking on his/her door to perform an arrest.
Usually, they found out when one of the following things occur:
- A federal prosecutor formally informs your client that he/she is the target of an investigation through a target letter.
- A federal law enforcement agent contacts your client by phone and asks for a meeting.
- Former colleagues or business associates of your client tells him that they have been interrogated, searched, or subpoenaed to testify in conjunction with activities in which your client was involved.
- Federal agents show up unannounced at his/her home, place of business or other location that he/she frequent, and try to interrogate your client.
- They receive a grand jury subpoena requiring them to testify or provide documents.
- Federal agents execute a search warrant at their home or place of business.
These events may occur in tandem.
How you, as an attorney, can help your client in a federal investigation?
Once you legally represent them, you should assist them to answer important questions and put him in the best position possible.
Be prepared to respond to questions such as:
- Does the government consider him, a subject, or merely a witness in the prosecution?
The way the government views your client's role in an investigation can have significant implications on what he/she should do.
- Should your client meet with the federal prosecutor and agents for an interview, or proffer session?
As a general advice, the decision to meet with the government to answer questions in a federal investigation is one that must be made with extreme caution.
It can quickly flip from one side to the other, either convincing the prosecutor that your client is innocent, or that the role was so minimal that the prosecuting him is not worthwhile, or even prove that your client was entirely dishonest, giving the prosecutor's statement that will later be used against him.
- If he receives a grand jury subpoena to testify and produce documents, what should he do?
If he has been subpoenaed to testify, it is important to make him understand what his rights are, and what he should do to protect them.
You should advise him that if he violated the law, he should protect himself by asserting the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
You can also assist him in reaching out to the prosecutors and on behalf of your client provide them any further information they need.
Also, advice advises him on what documents he has the right to withhold from production.
For further details on the federal criminal justice process, I encourage you to read this FBI resource.
II. Is there any difference between a federal and a state criminal charge?
- The prosecutors
Federal prosecutors are termed Assistant United States Attorneys.
They tend to have fewer cases in comparison to state prosecutors, and they tend to spend more time working on the cases they appeal.
In state court, usually the police decide whom to charge, and a state prosecutor only sees it shortly before the tribunal.
In federal crimes, there are two types of judges that will be involved in a federal felony.
The first one a United States Magistrate Judge.
He will most likely be the first judge that appears in front of your client after he/she has been arrested on federal charges.
A federal magistrate judge may also hear some motions in your case.
The second one is a United States District Judge.
They are appointed by the President of the United States and are confirmed by the United States Senate.
They serve for life, and can only be removed by being impeached by the Senate.
- The Court's Schedule
They have fewer cases than most state court judges.
In state court, may cases are set for the same court hearing.
This rarely happens in federal court; this is why normally your case is the only one that will be heard at that time.
Even more, your case is almost always the only case set for trial in front of that judge on that day.
Because state court trial dates are unpredictable, sometimes, in state court, you can wait until the last minute, and the prosecutor will not be ready.
In state court, the judge will then sometimes dismiss the case.
Cases are rarely rejected in federal court if the prosecutor is not ready.
Because everyone knows that on the day of trial the trial will start, the AUSA will guarantee that his or her witnesses are available.
In state court, bail is often only a question of coming up with money.
In federal court, the judge will impose conditions of release, and supervision by an officer in a federal pretrial services office.
These requirements can include a monetary bail, but more likely they require your client to check in regularly with the pretrial services officer, receive mental health testing or treatment, and submit to a review of his/her financial information – particularly for a white-collar crime.
- The Jury Pool
In state court, the jury pool originates from people who are in the same county as the court.
Potential federal jurors, come from the judicial district or judicial division where the court is located.
A federal judicial district commonly includes a significant number of counties.
The jurors in federal court come from a more geographically diverse area than in state court.
Because the jurors come from a broader geographic area, they tend to be more demographically diverse than a state court jury.
III. Federal crimes
1. Federal Drug Charges
In the American Judicial practice, state laws have a broad area of accountability when it comes to implementing criminal drug laws.
The federal government gets involved in various fields as well, particularly in the cases of drug trafficking.
The result is that the jurisdictions will frequently overlap requiring the agencies to adjust the investigation if someone is charged with a drug crime.
It is understandable for someone to be charged initially at the state level and, at a later time, the federal level.
2.White Collar Crime
White collar crime is a label which embraces the whole variety of fraud committed by government and business professionals. White collar crime charges are among the toughest to defend and beat.
Usually, the defense is a realm of first-class white collar criminal attorneys who have the experience and expertise to manage cases of this magnitude.
Federal-level weapon charges frequently include a variety offenses covering the possession and use of firearms.
Sometimes, solely being in possession of a gun is enough to trigger felony weapon charges, especially if the accused is a sentenced felon or does not have a permit.
Counterfeiting is the crime of creating a product with the intention to imitate another and describes the reproduction of currency in extension to the imitation of clothing, shoes, auto parts and other products.
5. Computer Hacking
Cyber crime is the logical next step with the expansion of the internet and the increasing use of digital life-managers.
Any criminal act that requires a computer – either as the source of the crime or offense’s target- is considered a cyber crime.
A word that is heavily imbued with political and emotional connotations, terrorism uses acts that create fear and are carried out with the hunger to advance a religious, political or ideological purpose.
Utilized by a diversity of parties, Terrorism has been practiced by conservative and liberal organizations, religious groups, revolutionaries and seated governments.
Terrorism as a symbol abuses social anxieties to achieve its objectives.
Conspiracy, as a law violation, is an agreement, between individuals, to carry out a criminal act at some point in the future. Conspiracy law usually does not require authorities to prove specific intent by the accused.
Generally, the law merely requires that the co-defendants have agreed to implement an illegal act.
Harassment deals with a diversity of behaviors; all of them offensive.
A repetitive behavior meant to upset; harassment rises to the level of a felony when the behavior crosses state borders or includes of interstate relationships.
9. Obstruction of Justice
In America, obstruction of justice deals with the obstruction of police work, investigations, and regulatory agencies.
Typically, obstruction charges arise when investigators discover that an individual questioned during an inquiry has misled the investigating officers.
Obstruction charges can also be established if a person destroys or attempts to conceal physical evidence.
Kidnapping is the unlawful transportation of a person against that individual’s will. Often committed for ransom, parental kidnapping is also prevalent in child custody disputes.
11. Federal Charges Enticing a Minor
Child pornography abuses children for sexual stimulation and pleasure.
Child pornography usually includes a variety of media including writings, images, sculptures, painting, and even video games.
Ninety-three nations have made porn illegal. Federal Penal Code specifies severe punishment and lengthy prison terms for such offenses.
In general, Federal crimes are those that affect or can have an effect on individuals or entities beyond the borders of the state itself—even philosophically as is the case with Civil Rights violations.
IV. Steps to becoming a federal criminal defense attorney
1. Qualifying for Law School
As in any other field in which you wish to practice law, your start point will be to obtain a bachelor's degree to get into law school.
It does not matter what kind of bachelor's degree you get, as long as it is a four-year degree from an accredited college or university, but most pre-law students obtain a bachelor's degree in political science, psychology, or sociology.
In the mean time practice your public speaking, as it is an important skill that you will need as an attorney.
Do not forget about your grades, as they should be at least 3.0, but of course, 3.5 or 4.0 would be even better.
Given the fact that admissions committees view a high GPA as an indicator that you are a hard worker who is self-motivated, it is crucial to obtain the highest grades as humanly possible.
Among other things that you should accomplish to qualify for law school, try to build relationships with your professors, as you will need letters of recommendation, an intern with a criminal defense lawyer if you wish to follow this path, and lastly but not least study for the LSAT.
2. Law school
After you have carefully chosen where you want to study law and got accepted, the "fun" begins.
You will need to take required courses, taking in consideration that law school, in general, require 90 credits or so, flattened out over three years.
I advise you to join a study group and take exams seriously as your grades will follow you around your entire career.
Also, try to take criminal law electives as soon as possible if you wish to go down this path. Many law schools provide students to begin taking electives beginning with their second semester.
You will want to take courses such as Constitutional Criminal Procedure, Trial Advocacy, and Evidence.
Do not forget about internships as they are invaluable in obtaining a good job shortly.
Look into completing an "externship" with a federal judge or a state criminal court judge, so that you can gather as much information you can in this field.
After all of this, you will need to pass the MPRE, which stands for Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam so that you can practice in all but three jurisdictions in the United States.
3. Obtaining your law license
You will need to apply for admittance to a state bar. For further detail, you should check with the bar of the state where you wish to practice as they will provide you with a list of the necessary steps to take.
Register for the bar exam and prepare for it thoughtfully. The preparation usually last for several months so that you will be fit for both the essay and multiple choice portions of the bar exam.
4. Starting as a criminal defense lawyer
You will need to understand how the job market for criminal defense lawyers works.
Some law students who attend highly-ranked schools and graduate at the top of their class will get proposals while in law school to enroll in the major national firms to work as associates practicing white collar law, but this will not be the reality for the vast majority of new attorneys.
If you are not one of them, do not despair, try to reach out to former employers for which you have worked during the summer or part-time during the school year, to see if you can fit in, or try to search online for job postings.
V. Job description
Criminal defense attorneys usually work at least 40 hours a week, although longer hours are common.
Additionally, work hours may be uncertain because clients or law firms may require nights and weekends.
The primary purpose of a criminal attorney is to represent their party in the criminal court system.
This includes arraignments, pretrial hearings, settlement conferences, trials and sentence hearings.
They defend adults and juveniles at the federal, state and local level.
Usually, criminal lawyers are running in numerous cases at one time, each at varying stages of the criminal process.
Throughout the criminal process, criminal attorneys offer legal advice to their clients that would be in their best interests.
Criminal lawyers’ comprehensive understanding of the law helps them safeguard their client’s constitutional rights.
The average salary of a criminal lawyer is $78,500.
Nevertheless, the salary can fluctuate from $45,000 to $130,000.
Interestingly, private criminal lawyers make the lowest earnings among lawyers.
Experience and climbing to the peak of the career ladder, however, increases a criminal lawyer’s pay scale.
To see how the salary of a criminal defense lawyer compares to other fields check here.
Still not sure what path to follow? Check other types of lawyers!