The answer to whether or not you should turn yourself in needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis. If you know you participated in something that was a crime and believe that it’s being investigated, the best thing you can do for yourself is to contact a criminal defense attorney. The second-best thing you can do for yourself is to be honest with that attorney (remember that you now have attorney-client privilege) so that your attorney knows the reality of the situation. From there, you can develop a plan of how you want to approach your case.
Let’s say the circumstance of your case is that you played a minor role in the crime. This happens a lot in conspiracy cases: a person becomes part of a criminal conspiracy, sometimes unknowingly, and then exits the conspiracy when they realize what is occurring. If you go to a criminal defense attorney at that point, the attorney might suggest reaching out to law enforcement to see how you can help yourself. In that case, coming forward and providing information to law enforcement can be seen as very favorable. Depending on what your role was in the crime, you might receive a complete pass (which means you’re not charged criminally), you might become the key informant for the government, or you might still be charged but with a much less serious crime than if you had waited and not reported your involvement. At a minimum, you would receive credit for reporting the crime to authorities at the sentencing phase of your case if your involvement was significant. In the worst-case scenario, they already have evidence against you when you come forward; even so, presenting yourself first still provides you a much stronger sentencing position. You could request a reduction in your sentence, which the judge is much more likely to grant if you turned yourself in.
Therefore, it’s very important to speak first with your attorney and develop a game plan together. Never go directly to the federal authorities. Talking to law enforcement without first consulting an attorney does not secure you any benefits for your cooperation.
If someone comes to me and says, “Look, I believe I was involved in a crime. I didn’t realize it. Or I did it, but now I regret it, and I want to help myself,” Depending on the case, I can then contact law enforcement myself and tell them, “I’ve got someone that wants to talk about this crime. What can you tell me? Is he going to be charged? If he comes in and is one hundred percent honest, will he get a pass as a cooperative witness?” I try to reach some form of agreement beforehand so that we’re not talking blindly.
I also secure what’s sometimes referred to as a “Queen for a Day” or “King for a Day” agreement, which means that we sign an agreement with law enforcement that what is discussed in the meeting can never be used against you. If you were to speak to law enforcement on your own, they would record you and take notes, which they could potentially use against you. Your attorney will ensure that whatever you discuss with law enforcement is protected information.
Can I Just Hire Any Criminal Defense Attorney or Is There a Requirement to Practice in Federal Court?
First, you want to make sure that the attorney you hire is barred in federal court, specifically the federal court where you think your case might be. Every state has different federal districts; Florida, for example, has three: the Southern District; the Middle District, and the Northern District. Ideally, the attorney you select should be barred in the particular district for your case.
Federal criminal defense, unlike state, is fairly uniform across the United States. Some courts do have requirements that the attorney be barred in that particular state, but you can still hire local counsel to work the case with an appropriately barred attorney. To give an example, I’m only barred in the state of Florida, but I’m also federally admitted to the court in Texas. I can take cases all around the country, depending on the court, if I hire a local counsel to assist me. This is very common in California and New York.
The key thing is to find an attorney who is focused on federal criminal defense (as opposed to state, which is completely different). A lot of criminal defense attorneys will brag about previously working as a prosecutor or a public defender, but if they worked as a state prosecutor, their experience will have no bearing, influence, or advantage in a federal system. Even if they’ve done a hundred jury trials in the state system, the federal system has a completely different set of rules. The federal criminal rules of procedure are different; the rules of evidence are different. An attorney with actual experience in the federal system will focused their practice on federal cases.
To summarize, being a criminal defense attorney doesn’t necessarily mean the lawyer has federal court experience. That’s a key difference you should be sure to look into, as well as verifying the attorney has been admitted to the correct federal court.
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