Being charged with any type of crime can be a traumatic experience, especially because the outcome can greatly impact your life, your family, or your freedom. But when you're facing federal criminal charges, the stakes are upped considerably. Federal crimes are handled and prosecuted much differently than most crimes at the state level, and prosecutors usually don't pursue these charges unless they are confident they have a solid case against you.
If you live in New Jersey but have been charged with a federal crime, you need a skilled New Jersey criminal defense lawyer who has specific experience with federal cases. Let's discuss federal crimes in more detail, including what types of crimes get charged at the federal level (versus the state), how the trial process works, common penalties for federal criminal convictions, and what to do if you're facing federal charges.
What Constitutes a Federal Offense?
Each state has its own criminal code (including here in New Jersey), and many of these codes run parallel to federal law. In most cases, when both federal and state laws have been violated, the federal government will defer to the state to press charges and prosecute them. However, there are situations when the alleged crime moves into federal jurisdiction and will be charged at the federal level. Examples include:
- Crimes that cross international or state boundaries. For example, if a sex offense or fraud took place over the Internet, it may be charged as a federal crime if the victim was in another state. Likewise, if you abduct someone and transport them across state lines, you'll probably be charged by the feds. Drug trafficking is also commonly prosecuted federally since it usually involves transporting drugs across national borders or state lines.
- Crimes against the government. Examples might include hacking government computers, conspiring against the government, or RICO offenses.
- Crimes that take place on federal property. For example, if you vandalize a statue in a state park, it's a state crime, but if you do the same at a national monument, it's a federal crime.
Crimes that Are Always Charged as Federal Crimes
There are some criminal offenses that will always (or almost always) be prosecuted by the federal government rather than by the state. These include:
- Securities fraud
- Violations of interstate commerce (e.g., drug trafficking, smuggling)
- Attacks that involve federal agencies or federally regulated institutions (e.g., airplane hijacking, mail fraud)
Crimes that Are Commonly Charged as Federal Crimes
While many of the following are also violations of state law, they often have extenuating circumstances that elevate them to the federal level. These include, but are not limited to:
- Bank robbery (if it's a national institution)
- Drug trafficking
- Human trafficking
- Organized crime/RICO offenses (criminal association and racketeering activity)
- Child pornography
- Wire fraud
- Antitrust violations
- Other "White-collar crimes" (e.g., embezzlement, forgery, money laundering, fraud)
- Identity theft
How the Federal Criminal Process Works
In the United States legal system, the federal criminal process follows a different pathway than most state governments. Here's a brief overview of how criminal charges are processed at the federal level.
- Investigation. Criminal investigations begin when an agency (e.g., FBI, ATF) or officer (e.g., police detective) suspects someone of committing a crime. Information is gathered during this phase to determine if there's sufficient evidence to support criminal charges. This process can occur behind the scenes for a long time, sometimes for years.
- Complaint/Grand Jury Indictment. Unlike most state governments in which indictments are only required for certain felony offenses, federal prosecutors must obtain a Grand Jury indictment against you in order to prosecute any federal crime. Sometimes, government officials who suspect probable cause will start the case by filing a formal complaint in a federal court. This enables the issuing of an arrest warrant and gets the case moving while the Grand Jury deliberates. The fact that a Grand Jury indictment is required can be both a plus and a minus. On the one hand, it places a higher burden of proof on the prosecution before they can officially accuse you of a crime. On the other, if the Grand Jury does produce an indictment, it means they have already accumulated a significant amount of evidence against you.
- Initial appearance. Immediately upon being arrested, you will make your initial appearance in federal court. At this time, the judge informs you of the charges against you and determines whether or not you are eligible for bail. You will also be asked to register a plea of guilty or not guilty.
- Preliminary hearing. You have the right to request a preliminary hearing shortly after your initial appearance. This hearing is held before a federal magistrate judge to determine whether there is enough evidence to support the charges and proceed with a trial. This may or may not be strategically beneficial (and you have the right to waive the preliminary hearing), but in some cases, it gives your defense attorney the chance to see how rong the prosecution's case is against you.
- Discovery. During the discovery phase, both sides must share any and all evidence they possess. If you believe the prosecution has not revealed its full case, you may file motions to compel them to do so. This, again, lets your attorney know how strong the prosecution's case is and how to prepare a defense.
- Plea bargain. In many cases (if not most), federal prosecutors will offer a plea deal--an opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge in return for a lighter sentence in order to avoid going to trial. In many situations, it may be in your best interest to take the deal or to have your attorney negotiate a better deal. (Remember, if you've been indicted, that means the prosecution already believes strongly that they have plenty of evidence to convict you.) Many federal charges never make it to trial simply because they are resolved at this stage.
- Trial. If the case goes to trial, your federal trial will be similar in scope to any state-run trial. Your case will be heard by 12 jurors of your peers who will determine your guilt or innocence. Both sides will present their arguments, call and cross-examine witnesses, etc. To convict you, all 12 jurors must agree unanimously that you are guilty.
- Sentencing. Federal guidelines regarding sentencing are quite extensive, and for serious crimes, there are often mandatory minimum penalties. That said, the sentencing phase for federal cases can be quite involved. Once you're convicted, it will be several weeks before you are sentenced. During that time, you'll be interviewed by a United States Probation Officer who will compile an extensive Pre-Sentencing Report (PSR). This report will take into account all circumstances surrounding the crime and any mitigating factors to help the judge decide on an appropriate sentence.
Penalties If You Are Convicted of a Federal Crime
If you are convicted of or plead guilty to a federal crime, the penalties you face will depend upon how serious your crime is, along with any details revealed in the PSR. Here are some of the possible penalties:
- Federal prison time — many federal crimes result in time served in a federal prison or jail. The length and type of sentence depends on various factors, including the specific law you've been accused of violating, whether or not you have a prior record, and how serious any injuries were to victims.
- Forfeiture — large amounts of cash earned through illegal activity will be seized. All equipment used in criminal activities may be confiscated as well. This includes hardware (computers), software (file sharing), and other tangible items of interest to law enforcement.
- Fines — these are financial penalties which you may be responsible for paying. They may be imposed in addition to or instead of prison, depending on the circumstances surrounding your case.
- Restitution — if you hurt another person while committing a federal crime, you will likely be required to compensate them for any expenses resulting from the crime. This may include medical care, repair or replacement of property, money paid to hire a private investigator or security guard, etc.
- Probation — certain convictions will result in probation, either following prison time or in lieu of prison. Under probation, you will be allowed to go free under specific terms and conditions set by the court for a specified period of time. Violating the terms of probation typically results in prison time.
Are the Penalties for Federal Crimes More Severe than for State Crimes?
Generally speaking, yes. Federal crime penalties tend to be more severe than those for similar state crimes, partly because the federal government has harsher mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes and partly because federal judges have less latitude in imposing lenient sentences. Federal drug crimes, for example, almost always carry longer prison sentences than equivalent state drug charges. Many state drug crimes can be charged either as misdemeanors or felonies, but at the federal level, drug crimes are almost always felony offenses.
Can I Be Tried for the Same Crime at Both the Federal and State Level?
It's not out of the question, but it is rare. Some people mistakenly believe that because the "double jeopardy" rule prevents them from being tried twice for the same crime, they can only be tried by the state or federal government, but not both. In reality, though, the state and federal governments are considered two separate sovereign governments, so theoretically, you could be tried for the same crime in both state and federal court. That being said, in the majority of cases, the federal government will either assume jurisdiction of a case or defer to the state. Only rarely will defendants face both state and federal charges at the same time, and if they do, they are usually for different aspects of the alleged crime.
Why It's Important to Hire an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney when Facing Federal Charges
The fascinating thing about federal crimes is that 98 percent of them never make it to trial. According to Pew Research data, 90 percent of federal defendants plead guilty (usually through a plea deal), and only 8 percent of them get their charges dismissed before going to trial. Of the remaining 2 percent who do go to trial, the conviction rate is a whopping 83 percent.
All that to say, if you're charged with a federal crime, your chance of being convicted of that crime is exceedingly high. The reason? Because federal prosecutors usually have been working on your case long before you're even aware of the charges—sometimes years before—and they don't officially charge you unless a majority of the Grand Jury believes there's enough evidence to convict you. So, by the time federal charges are filed, the prosecution already has a significant case against you--before you even have time to prepare a defense! This is a big reason why most federal cases end with a plea bargain. (Never mind the fact that federal sentencing is generally harsher than sentences at the state level.)
For all the reasons mentioned above, it's absolutely critical to your future that you don't face federal charges without the help of a highly skilled defense attorney--preferably one who has specific experience dealing with the federal court system. A good attorney will:
- Provide a clear understanding of the charges against you and what is at stake
- Review the strength of the prosecution's case against you and provide options for creating a defense strategy
- Advise you whether it's in your best interest to accept a plea deal or to fight it out in court
- Negotiate with prosecutors to procure the best and most lenient possible terms of any plea agreement
- Find the holes and the flaws in the prosecution's arguments along with their corroborating evidence, and develop compelling arguments to combat them
- Defend you vigorously in court if the matter goes to trial
- Prepare compelling appeals as needed if you are ultimately convicted
Being charged with a federal crime is nothing to take lightly; the repercussions, if you are convicted, could drastically affect your future. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm can provide the critical legal representation you need to respond to federal charges in a way that yields the best possible outcome. Call the Lento Law Firm today at (888) 535-3686 to discuss your options.