A federal charge is usually a violation of a federal law as opposed to a state law. Though some crimes or laws overlap and can result in both federal and state court charges, a federal case will be brought before a federal court by a United States Attorney or Assistant United States Attorney (versus a local county state prosecutor).
If I Believe or Know I’m Under Investigation for a Federal Crime, Should I Go Ahead and Hire a Federal Criminal Defense Attorney? Or Is It Better to Wait and See If I’m Actually Arrested?
You should contact and hire a federal criminal defense attorney right away. In fact, sitting and waiting is probably the worst thing you could do in this kind of scenario. Hiring an attorney when you think there might be a problem is proactive, and depending on the facts of the case, you might be helping yourself and your case significantly.
It’s much easier to talk to the US attorneys or the federal law enforcement agent investigating your case and try to convince them that you’ve done nothing wrong—or maybe cooperate with them in exchange for not receiving charges—than it is to convince a prosecutor and judge after you’ve already been indicted by a grand jury. The latter is something that almost never happens. Once you are indicted by a grand jury and charged, it is incredibly difficult to convince the prosecutors to then dismiss your case or let you walk. That would require approval by the judge, which is very rare.
Therefore, if you contact a lawyer early, you have a much better chance of helping yourself and your situation. Waiting is never recommended.
Tell Me About the Federal Indictment Process and the Grand Jury: Do All Cases Get to That Point? What Does It Take for a Case to Get to That Point? and What Should I Be Worried About?
A grand jury is similar to a regular jury. Prosecutors bring in people from the community to listen as they present the evidence they have gathered against a potential defendant. Once the evidence is presented, the grand jury takes a vote on whether or not they think there is enough evidence to proceed and charge that person with a crime.
One of the key differences between the federal criminal justice system and the state is that Florida does not require grand juries to charge someone criminally. Instead, it is the prosecutors themselves who look at the information given to them by the arresting officer or investigator, and make a determination based solely on their judgment. They can then file what is called an Information, which is a document that says, “We have enough to charge.”
In the federal system, a grand jury indictment is required except for very minor crimes. The indictment represents an extra step that federal prosecutors have to take before they can bring criminal charges, and the reason for this extra step is the seriousness of federal charges. An indictment is very hard to undo because a grand jury has already been impaneled and has voted that there is enough evidence to go forward, making it difficult for a judge to then dismiss their finding.
This is why it’s so important for you and your attorney to make contact with an investigator or the prosecutor before they call a grand jury—when you still have a chance to convince them not to call a grand jury or to work out an arrangement. It also gives your attorney time to control the narrative before the grand jury sees the evidence against you.
Another aspect of the grand jury that’s important to note is that the defendant has no right to be present or to know what was said. The grand jury meets in secret, so you do not have the option to defend yourself in any way. Because you’re not informed about the grand jury’s meeting or able to participate, you won’t know it has even met until you’re arrested.
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