Introduction to Federal Criminal Prosecution
The federal government’s prosecution of federal crimes is a massive enterprise. The United States and its territories are divided into 94 jurisdictions – each with a United States Attorney overseeing federal criminal prosecutions. In all, over 300 assistant U.S. Attorneys help in the effort.
Federal prosecutors have an enormous amount of law enforcement assistance in these investigations and prosecutions. Over 80 federal law enforcement agencies, employing over $130,000 full-time officers, exist. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has 35,000 employees. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the mission of investigating anti-terrorism, border security, and cybersecurity crimes. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has another 5,000 employees. This agency’s purview includes federal crimes involving the illegal use, manufacture, and possession of guns and explosives; arson and bombings; and evasion of alcohol and tobacco federal taxes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the Office of Criminal Investigations, which covers suspected crimes in food, drug, and related federal statutes
Federal Crimes in Washington, D.C.
The District of Columbia is a federal territory. Its method for prosecuting crimes is a combined federal and local effort.
All civil and criminal cases are adjudicated in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia – this court is technically part of the local D.C. government, but it is operated by the federal government.
The District has a D.C. Code, including criminal provisions. It was drafted by Congress, but the District’s local government can modify it, subject to oversight by Congress, which has the authority to amend the code and override and local amendments.
The code’s misdemeanors and traffic violations are heard in the court and prosecuted by the District’s local attorney general. Federal crimes are also heard in the court. However, the D.C. Code’s felony offenses and the U.S. Code’s federal offenses are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. This U.S. Attorney, a presidential appointee, reports to the United States Department of Justice – just like any other U.S. Attorney.
The bottom line is that if you’re charged with a felony under the D.C. Code, it is not a federal crime. However, it will be prosecuted by the federal government, with all the massive resources discussed above. Federal offenses (violations of the U.S. Code), which are also prosecuted by the same U.S. Attorney’s office, are federal crimes.
Punishments for Federal Crimes
The federal government does not mess around. It severely punishes a wide variety of crimes. Here is the classification system:
Felonies: a person convicted of a felony can be sentenced to more than one year in prison to life imprisonment, or death. Fines are also possible.
Misdemeanor: these convictions result in more than five days to one year or less in prison, and/or fines.
Infraction: no imprisonment or up to five days, and/or a fine
Overview of Criminal Procedure
Here is a broad overview of the basics of a federal, felony criminal case.
The defendant appears in U.S. District Court on a complaint, usually before a U.S. Magistrate Judge. The complaint describes the allegations against the defendant. The Magistrate Judge informs the accused of the substance of the complaint against them, and that they have a right to counsel, options for release, the right to a preliminary hearing, and the right to remain silent.
Unless indicted by a grand jury, the defendant attends a preliminary hearing within 14 days if they are in custody. The court decides whether there is probable cause to prosecute the case. Bailor release may also be considered at the hearing. Or it may be considered at a separate detention hearing. In either case, the court may decide to detain the person pending trial or to release them with conditions. The court considers factors such as flight risk and the danger posed to the community. Some alleged crimes, such as drug offenses, generally result in detainment pending trial.
Pretrial MotionsA defendant may file a number of different pretrial motions. These include motions to dismiss, motions for a change of venue, constitutional challenges, and more.
Motion to SuppressThe defendant asks the court to exclude certain evidence, due to it being illegally obtained by the prosecution.
Motion in LimineThe court is asked to make pretrial rulings on evidence issues that may arise at trial.
Discovery MotionsThe accused asks the court to order the prosecution to disclose evidence that the prosecution has obtained about them.
Plea OffersThe accused considers plea arrangements from the prosecution, or pleas guilty or not guilty.
TrialThe defendant has a right to a jury trial. This procedure encompasses basic constitutional protections such as the right to remain silent, to confront any witnesses against them, and require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
SentencingIf the accused pleads guilty or is found guilty, a report with sentencing options is prepared for the court. These options are largely the product of official U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. After sentencing, unless probation is granted, the convicted person goes to federal prison.
Those sentenced to incarceration are sent to one of the 110 federal prisons.
Probation also called supervised release, generally includes conditions. Commonly, these include no criminal conduct, providing DNA if requested, submitting to random drug tests, and paying any fines or restitution. Sometimes, additional conditions may be required, such as residence in a treatment center, being on home detention, following a curfew, or performing community services. Violation of conditions may result in further conditions imposed or imprisonment.
In 1984, parole for federal inmates was abolished. However, under certain conditions, they may be able to reduce a prison sentence for good behavior.
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Common Federal Crimes (Felonies) and Felonies in the D.C. Code
When the United States was formed, there were about seven felonies. Today, there are hundreds if not thousands in Washington, D.C., and around the rest of the country.
Felonies in the U.S. Code (Federal Crimes)Most of the commonly prosecuted federal crimes revolve around financial matters. Terrorism is another focus of the federal criminal system.
General FraudFraud is knowing and willful falsification or concealment, or the making of a materially false representation, or falsification of a document. Punishment includes imprisonment of up to five years.
Special Fraud StatutesThere are many statutes covering specific types of fraud crimes – such as those associated with transactions related to mortgage loans, highway contracts, Medicare, computers, and emails. Each of these carries a specific penalty.
EmbezzlementThis occurs where a defendant, who was in a special position of trust with another person, steals money from the person for the defendant’s personal gain. For example, if a banker who is charged with a deposit of federal money steals it for their benefit, that is embezzlement. The punishment for this crime is a fine and/or imprisonment of up to ten years.
BriberyWhoever gives or offers anything of value to a public official or person in order to influence that public official to their benefit is committing bribery. For example, if you pay an FBI agent to ignore your mortgage fraud scheme, that is bribery. A defendant convicted of bribery faces a fine and/or up-to 15 years in prison. That person may also be prohibited from public office.
Insider TradingWhen a person possesses material, non-public information about a company, then trades in that company’s securities (e.g., stocks) for profit or to avoid a loss, they commit insider trading.
One of the federal government’s major priorities not associated with financial crimes is terrorism. Much of the focus is on domestic terrorism. This involves an illegal act dangerous to human life, which appears intended to (1) intimidate civilians; (2) influence the government through intimidation; or (3) cause mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.
Sedition is where a person or a group of persons “conspire to overthrow, put down, … or to oppose [United States’ forces], … or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States.” The penalty is a fine and/or up-to 20 years in prison. Sound familiar? Well this just happened in Washington, D.C. – as discussed below.
Felonies in the D.C. Code
Local felonies in Washington, D.C. are similar to state felonies around the country, like murder or burglary
Riot at the Capitol
On the morning of January 6, 2021, at a “Save America” rally, President Trump reiterated his claims of election fraud, and said, “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Out of his supporters there, a mob formed and they descended upon the Capitol. The mob overran law enforcement and tore through the hallowed halls of our Congress.
When security at the Capitol failed, the Capitol police evacuated the chambers of the House of Representative and the Senate. Vice President Pence and others like Utah Senator Mitt Romney came within minutes of being overrun by the mob.
The evacuations all occurred while the rioters occupied and destroyed the Senate chamber. During the chaos, five people died and 140 others were injured.
By evening, the Capitol was finally cleared of the rioters. To date, about 150 participants in the rampage have been charged. Many of them will be prosecuted for misdemeanor crimes. However, some may face felony charges of sedition or similar.
Don’t Go it Alone in Washington, D.C.
If you’re being investigated, or called before a grand jury, or have been charged with a federal criminal complaint, get legal representation today. The same applies if you’ve been charged with a felony in the D.C. Code. The federal government, with its hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of law enforcement agents, has all the resources. You need a federal criminal attorney to help guide you through the process. This is all the more important in Washington, D.C., where all local felonies and federal crimes are prosecuted by federal prosecutors