Using a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer
By Aaron Larson
- The Federal Criminal System
- Federal Criminal Investigations
- Grand Jury Testimony
- Federal Criminal Proceedings
The same general principles apply to hiring a federal criminal defense lawyer as apply to hiring any other criminal lawyer. It is highly recommended that any person hiring a lawyer to assist with federal criminal charges or grand jury proceedings retain a lawyer who has significant experience with the federal system.
The federal criminal system is in many ways like the state system, but it has some very significant differences. One difference is that the typical United States Attorney's office, responsible for prosecuting federal criminal charges, has significantly more time and resources to direct to any given prosecution than would a state prosecutor.
Federal prosecutors also typically have better academic credentials than state prosecutors, and many have a great deal of latitude in selecting the cases they wish to prosecute through the federal courts. Save for crimes which occur on federal land, those cases which fall exclusively to the jurisdiction of a federal prosecutor tend to be of an interstate nature, and are more likely than a state prosecution to be legally and factually complex.
As a result, federal criminal defense tends to involve cases which are more difficult to defend, and the cost of defense is often very high. In each federal jurisdiction there is also a Federal Defender's office, which can provide legal representation to indigent defendants.
If you are contacted by the federal authorities in relation to a criminal investigation, the first thing you must attempt to determine is if you are being contacted as a potential witness or as a suspect. The second thing you must determine is what statements you can safely make to the authorities without potentially falling into a trap, such as being charged with lying to federal agents. Consider for example the case of Martha Stewart, who was acquitted of any direct criminal wrongdoing but spent time in prison for making false statements to federal investigators.
A federal criminal defense lawyer can help you assess the nature and purpose of the investigation, and why you are being approached. While you should expect your lawyer to instruct you to provide honest answers to any questions from the federal authorities, your lawyer may be able to guide you around any potential traps or pitfalls. When appropriate, a federal criminal defense lawyer can be present during any questioning, act as an intermediary between you and the investigating authorities, or advise you to exercise your Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. If appropriate, a federal criminal defense lawyer may be able to work out a deal where you will cooperate with the investigation, in return for more favorable treatment when the investigation is concluded. In appropriate cases your lawyer may also be able to secure a letter of declination, in which the U.S. attorney formally declines to prosecute you in relation to a particular offense or investigation.
When a person receives a subpoena to testify before a grand jury, as with an investigation, it is not always apparent whether the person is being subpoenaed as a witness or as a potential target for indictment. As with an investigation, a federal criminal defense lawyer can help a grand jury witness determine the likely purpose of the subpoena, how to avoid potential traps and pitfalls when providing testimony, or when to "take the fifth". The lawyer may also be able to work out a deal for immunity, or for use immunity (meaning that the testimony provided before the grand jury cannot be used to advance a criminal prosecution against the witness), in relation to the testimony.
It is helpful during federal criminal proceedings to be represented by a lawyer who is familiar with the federal rules of evidence, federal rules of criminal procedure, trial procedure, and the federal court system in general. The lawyer should also be familiar with federal sentencing procedures, and with the recent Supreme Court rulings which affect sentencing. It helps to have a defense lawyer who is familiar with the U.S. Attorney's office which is handling the case, and ideally some familiarity with the federal investigative agency which spearheaded the investigation.
There is no such thing as a highly qualified federal criminal defense lawyer who dabbles in federal court matters. Lawyers either know federal criminal defense, or they don't. If you are involved in the federal criminal system, make sure your lawyer, or at least one of the lawyers who will be serving on your defense team, has extensive experience with the defense of federal criminal charges. As previously noted, federal criminal defense tends to be very expensive. You will be paying for specialized experience - so make sure you get it.
Copyright © 2004 - 2011 Aaron Larson. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you believe you may lawfully use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article under the Fair Use exception to copyright law, except as otherwise authorized by the author of the article, you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.