Federal criminal investigations are not like other investigations. When most of us start investigating something, we do not have an idea of what happened. We seek people out who might know and start asking them questions. As we get more information, we start to form an opinion. However, by the time that federal criminal investigators start asking questions, they often have an idea about what they think might have happened. The investigation is a way to confirm what they suspect and to get suspects and witnesses to take a position on the matter that can be used against them later.
How It Begins
If you are under investigation for a federal crime, especially a white collar crime, your first contact with investigators will usually come with an unannounced knock on your door or a visit to your office. The visit can come from a wide variety of investigators, such as the IRS, SEC, FDC, FCC or FTC. The agents will tell you that they just need you to answer a few questions. Unless they have absolute certainty that you are guilty, they will not ordinarily tell you that you are a suspect. They will not place you under arrest and read you your rights. The agents will instead often tell you that they need your help to figure out what happened.
The biggest problem that you face is that the agents asking you the questions are trained to get you to say something that tends to incriminate you, even if the question seems innocent enough. For example, you might be asked where you were at 11am on this same date one year ago. If you really think about the question, you probably can’t answer it accurately unless the date is of special significance to you. It’s not a fair question for anyone to ask you out of the blue. The trap is that you might say that you were at your office because that is where you are at 11am on most days. That is how many people answer. However, if the agents know that you were actually somewhere else, then you have just been caught telling a lie to federal investigators. Of course, you are very unlikely to be asked the question unless the investigators already know the answer to it from other sources. That is what federal agents do. They ask questions they know the answer to in the hopes that you say something else because by saying something else, you have just incriminated yourself.
Lying to Federal Agents
What many people do not understand is that lying to federal investigators is a crime in and of itself. You don’t have a duty to help investigators, especially if you are the target. However, you can be convicted of a crime if you actually hinder them and lying to them is considered hindering them. A famous example of this is Martha Stewart. You might know that she was being investigated by the SEC for insider trading. She spent time in prison. What many people do not realize is that Stewart was not convicted of insider trading. The government did not have enough evidence to convict her of that. Stewart, however, did not tell the entire truth when she was questioned by investigators from the SEC. She went to prison for lying to them even though she could not be convicted of anything else.
Escalating the Investigation
Once federal investigators have either caught you in a lie or gotten you to admit to some other incriminating information, only then might you be informed that you are a subject of the investigation. You might be arrested and you might be read your rights. It is likely that a grand jury will also investigate you. Grand jury investigations have their own special dangers that you should be aware of and that you can read about on this site. Ultimately, if federal investigators believe that you have done something illegal, you are likely going to face criminal charges.
What You Can Do
If the above information sounds like it is meant to scare you, that is because it is. Federal investigations are not something that should be taken lightly. From the moment that you first have contact with federal agents, you need to be aware of how to speak with them and how to protect your interests. As mentioned above, you will probably not be read your rights when investigators first contact you. However, you still have the rights at that time. You have the right to an attorney and you have the right to remain silent. The best thing that you can do when federal investigators show up to question you about anything is to politely tell them that you will not answer any questions until you speak to an attorney. They might try to talk you out of that, but if you know how dangerous federal investigations can be, you will not listen to the agents. You will call an attorney.