What is a Federal Crime?
The U.S. Constitution establishes courts that rule on cases involving federal laws, and these federal courts use different guidelines and sentencing procedures from those at the state level. Federal criminal cases are often investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) but can also involve other federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Drug Enforcement Agency.
There are more than 200 categories of crimes that can be considered a federal crime, but crimes commonly tried at the federal level include:
- Wire Fraud
- Drug trafficking
- Financial crime such as tax evasion or inside trading
- Organized crime and gang-related activity
- Weapons charges
In addition to cases involving federal law, another deciding factor in whether a crime is tried by the state or federal government is jurisdiction — the authority of a court to make legal decisions. Individual states often have jurisdiction over crimes that took place within state boundaries, but examples of federal jurisdiction include crimes that:
- occur on federal land such as a national park, Indian reservation, or military base
- involve federal officers such assaulting FBI or DEA agents
- cross state lines
- involve human trafficking or importing illegal drugs into the country
There are some federal crimes, such certain sex crimes and crimes punishable with the death penalty, that do not have a statute of limitations. While the majority of the other crimes have limitations of five years from the time it was committed, federal law includes exceptions for those limits for certain crimes involving immigration, arson, or child abuse.
What if the State and Federal Government Both Have Jurisdiction?
The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution protects against what is known as “double jeopardy,” meaning someone cannot be prosecuted for the same crime twice. In instances that involve violations of both federal and New Jersey state law, the defendant can actually be prosecuted by both state and federal courts.
This is referred to as “concurrent jurisdiction,” and The Supreme Court of the U.S. and the Supreme Court of New Jersey have ruled this does not violate the double jeopardy clause.
What is the Process of a Federal Criminal Charge?
Before someone learns they are the target of an investigation, it is likely federal agencies have been acquiring evidence. That is why if someone knows they are under investigation for a federal crime, it is crucial to obtain legal representation immediately.
If the federal prosecutor decides, based on the investigation and their presentation to the grand jury, to indict the suspect, a formal notice of indictment is delivered that details the charges.
At the initial hearing, the defendant is brought before a judge or magistrate, and it is decided if he or she will be released or held in prison until the trial.
From there, both the prosecutor and defense team will enter the discovery phase and prepare their respective cases. If the government believes they have convincing evidence, they may offer a plea deal to avoid a trial and potentially reduce the sentencing.
If the defendant pleads not guilty, the parties enter a preliminary hearing within 21 days, where witnesses and evidence are brought forward. The judge will then decide whether to continue with a trial or dismiss charges.
If a trial is held, both sides of the cases are presented to the jury for a determination of guilty or not guilty. In a federal court, the jury must make a unanimous decision for the defendant to be convicted.
Sentencing is generally issued a few months after the guilty verdict. Congress has established guidelines that determine the appropriate sentencing for various crimes.
Sentencing in Federal Court
Individuals in Federal Court are sentenced according to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Sentencing in the Federal system requires a three (3) step process:
- Courts must continue to calculate a defendant’s Guidelines sentence precisely as they would have before United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005);
- Courts must formally rule on the departure motions of both parties and state on the record whether they are granting a department and how that departure affects the Guidelines calculation; and
- Courts must exercise their discretion by considering the relevant aggravating and mitigating factors.
More succinctly stated, a defendant is given assigned a Criminal History Category based on their prior criminal record. An offense level is calculated based on the offense and factors relating to the offense. A range of months is calculated and serves as the Guideline sentence. The Sentencing Judge is permitted to utilize its authority to sentence the defendant to a sentence within, above or below the range. Click HERE for a sample Federal sentencing guideline table.
Can Charges be Appealed?
Convictions by a federal court can be appealed to the Circuit Court. An appeal is not the chance for another trial but instead the opportunity for the defendant to claim he or she was wrongly convicted. Potential reasons for an appeal include:
- The judge made an incorrect decision to suppress evidence
- Sentencing was too harsh
- There was an unlawful search and seizure that uncovered evidence
- The jury was not instructed properly on court procedures
An appeal can result in the court’s decision being modified or reversed, or a new trial could result. The defendant can also attempt to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Hire a New Jersey Federal Criminal Defense Attorney
If you learn you are being charged with a federal crime, federal agencies are likely well into the process of gathering evidence, and you need a solid legal defense to battle alongside you each step of the way.
The vast majority of federal court trials result in convictions. You need representation during each phase of the process to help you identify your best options and guide your decisions. Contact Daniel M. Rosenberg & Associates through our website or call (609) 216-7400.