Federal Criminal Law

Few legal problems are as intimidating or nerve-wracking as being the subject of a federal investigation. The federal penal system operates under a different set of laws than the Pennsylvania state penal system, and many who find they're being accused of a federal offense don't know the first place to turn. Federal charges are very serious and require an even more serious defense strategy.

If you or someone you love is facing federal criminal charges in PA, the first thing you should do is speak to a skilled and experienced federal criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania.

Federal Court Districts in Pennsylvania

There are fewer federal courts in Pennsylvania than there are PA state courts. These federal courts are located within designated districts. In PA, there are three federal districts: the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and the Western District of Pennsylvania.

A bulk of cases are handled in the Eastern District courts because it's more densely populated. There are four courthouse locations within this district in:

  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Allentown,PA
  • Reading, PA
  • Easton, PA

If you've been accused of a federal crime in Pennsylvania, it's critical you speak to a PA defense attorney well-versed in the federal criminal trial process.

What to Expect if You're Charged with a Federal Crime

The Grand Jury

Federal charges stem from a Grand Jury. Before you're formally charged, a federal investigatory agency, such as the FBI, will submit evidence to a Grand Jury. The Grand Jury will then decide whether enough evidence has been provided to move forward with a formal charge. In addition to evidence, the Grand Jury could hear testimony from witnesses. Although the Grand Jury process is trial-like in nature, it does not make a determination of guilty or not guilty. If the Grand Jury finds that there is enough evidence to bring formal charges, then it will return an indictment.

Many don't even know they're the subject of a Grand Jury until they're notified of the indictment against them. If the Grand Jury doesn't return an indictment, those under investigation in Pennsylvania may never even know they were the subject of a Grand Jury.

The Arraignment

After a formal charge and arrest, the accused will face the first hearing in their prosecution. This arraignment hearing is similar to an arraignment hearing at the PA state level, and those accused will have their first opportunity to hear the formal charges against them and present evidence that justifies their release on bail. You should absolutely have a federal criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania by this point, who can help present to the judge the reasons why you're deserving of release on bail.

Before the Trial

The time between your arraignment hearing and your federal criminal trial can last months, but that doesn't mean your attorney won't start working right away on your defense strategy. During the pre-trial period, the discovery process occurs, which is the legal process by which your attorney will seek out and analyze evidence that helps put forth your best defense possible.

You will also attend the Preliminary Hearing during the pre-trial period. At the Preliminary Hearing, the judge will decide if there's enough evidence to send your case to trial. If the judge finds that evidence is insufficient, your case could be dismissed. You might also be offered a plea deal by federal prosecutors during the pre-trial period. Sometimes a plea deal is a defendant's best move, but other times your attorney may advise against it. Whether or not you should accept a plea deal should be determined by an honest discussion with your attorney.

Your attorney may also file strategic motions during the pre-trial period, which could cause a transfer in court jurisdiction or work to keep certain evidence from consideration during the trial.

The Federal Criminal Trial

Most have some sense of what an actual criminal trial will consist of. Generally, these trials last anywhere from a few days to a week but can last longer if the case is particularly difficult. During the trial, federal prosecutors and your federal criminal defense attorney will each present the two sides of the case, the evidence, and witness testimony. Both sides will have an opportunity to respond to and/or dispute evidence, and, at the trial's conclusion, the jury will render a decision based on the evidence presented at trial.

After The Federal Criminal Trial

If your federal criminal trial concludes with a finding of innocence, then you'll be free to go. If, on the other hand, you are found guilty of some or all of the charges against you, the next step is the sentencing phase. You will be sentenced within a few months after the conclusion of the trial. The judge could make a sentencing determination based on a combination of victims' statements, aggravating factors, or any prior criminal history. Though it can be incredibly disappointing to receive a guilty verdict and a sentence, it's not uncommon.

Appealing the Result of Your Case or the Severity of Your Sentence

If you've hired a knowledgeable federal criminal defense attorney, they will have prepared for the possibility that you might need to appeal the verdict or the sentence. In fact, your attorney should have been preparing for this possibility even before the conclusion of the trial. The federal criminal appeals process is lengthy but it's a fight worth fighting. Injustices, judicial prejudices, and prosecutorial mistakes happen in federal criminal trials every day, and you should be prepared to fight back.

If you wish to appeal your case, your attorney will file the appropriate motion within the required time frame, which is generally within a few weeks of the lower court's formal entry of judgment. When the federal appellate court, also known as the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for cases originating in Pennsylvania, reviews your case, it won't review new evidence and will only make a decision as to whether or not the lower court made an error. Your case could be sent back to the lower court for a retrial, or it could be dismissed. If you're appealing your sentence, the appellate court could reduce your sentence or alter the terms of it.

After you exhaust your options at the lower court and the appellate court level, the only other option is to try and get your case heard before the United States Supreme Court. It's important to understand, however, that most cases aren't taken up by the Supreme Court.

What Constitutes a Federal Crime?

Most people are arrested for committing crimes that violate Pennsylvania state law and are prosecuted in PA state court. Sometimes, though, the only difference between a Pennsylvania crime and a federal offense is where it occurs. If you've committed an act but aren't sure whether you've violated federal law or PA law, you should speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney.

A knowledgeable federal criminal defense lawyer will help you understand if the Pennsylvania government or the federal government has jurisdiction when you're worried you might be prosecuted. An offense can be prosecuted under federal law when there is authority for such prosecution set out in the United States Constitution.

In addition to other limited circumstances, the Constitution allows for a crime to be prosecuted at the federal level if:

  • You cross state lines during the commission of the crime
  • You commit the crime on federal property, including federal lands and national parks
  • You commit the crime against the federal government or a federal employee

If you're convicted of a federal criminal offense, you could face a lengthy prison sentence, or in some cases, life imprisonment. In addition to time in federal prison, the judge could order you to pay fines, restitution, or a special assessment.

What Federal Laws are Federal Crimes Prosecuted Under?

Most federal crimes are prosecuted under Title 18 of the United States Code. The United States Code can be described as the laws of our nation, categorized by subject. The U.S.C. has been around for nearly 100 years, though these federal laws have undergone countless amendments and additions in that time. It's important that those who've been charged with a federal crime seek help from an experienced federal defense attorney who stays up to date on the ever-evolving state of federal law.

Title 18 isn't the only title involving federal crimes. Some crimes, like tax evasion, are codified under Title 26 of the United States Code. In addition to the United States Code, federal agencies make their own regulations that, if violated, could be prosecuted in federal court.

Who Investigates Federal Criminal Law Violations?

Most of the time, the FBI investigates criminal violations of federal law. It's not uncommon to believe the FBI only investigates big issues of national security, but that's a misconception. If the crime falls under federal jurisdiction, the FBI will often take the lead on investigating the suspect.

In addition to the FBI, the following agencies investigate federal crimes:

  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • Office of Inspector General (OIG)

Often, the subjects of an investigation don't realize they're under an investigation until the FBI shows up with an arrest warrant. Other times, an individual could be interviewed by the FBI on one investigation and ultimately get themselves into hot water by saying too much. You should not speak to the FBI or other federal investigatory body without a lawyer.

Crucially, it's easy to be caught off guard when the FBI shows up and “just wants to talk.” You might feel pressured into speaking with them right away, but you are not required to talk to the FBI before you have a chance to speak with your attorney. If you're approached by the FBI, remember the following:

  • Without a warrant, you shouldn't let the agent into your home without first speaking to your attorney
  • You don't have to answer any questions without speaking to an attorney
  • Asking to speak to your attorney before answering FBI questions does not make you guilty
  • You have a right to request to see a search warrant or an arrest warrant when an FBI agent says they have a right to enter your home or take you into custody

You should never feel as though hiring a defense attorney in Pennsylvania will in some way incriminate you or make you look guilty when you suspect the FBI is investigating you or wants to speak to you. The sooner you hire an experienced federal criminal defense attorney, the sooner you'll have an advocate on your side who can help you navigate the complex process of federal investigations.

Federal Criminal Offense Data

According to data provided by the United States Sentencing Commission, the following offenses comprise a breakdown of federal criminal cases as of 2019:

  • 38% - Immigration
  • 27% - Drug crimes
  • 11% - Firearms crimes
  • 8% - Fraud, theft, embezzlement
  • 8% - Miscellaneous crimes like interference with a flight crew, certain white-collar crimes, etc.
  • 2% - Child pornography
  • 2% - Sexual abuse
  • 2% - Robbery

Some of these federal crimes are discussed in more detail below.

Federal Immigration Crimes

Crimes involving illegal immigration don't only affect the immigrants themselves. Sometimes Pennsylvania citizens can find themselves charged with a federal crime if they try to help an illegal immigrant.

Under Title 8 of the United States Code, certain crimes could be charged relating to immigration issues, including:

  • Sec. 1322. Bringing in aliens subject to denial of admission on a health-related ground; persons liable; clearance papers; exceptions; “person” defined
  • Sec. 1323. Unlawful bringing of aliens into the United States
  • Sec. 1324. Bringing in and harboring certain aliens
  • Sec. 1324a. Unlawful employment of aliens
  • Sec. 1324b. Unfair immigration-related employment practices
  • Sec. 1324c. Penalties for document fraud
  • Sec. 1324d. Civil penalties for failure to depart
  • Sec. 1325. Improper entry by alien
  • Sec. 1326. Reentry of removed aliens
  • Sec. 1327. Aiding or assisting certain aliens to enter
  • Sec. 1328. Importation of alien for immoral purpose

Unfortunately, someone could be prosecuted for doing what they feel is the right thing by helping an immigrant without even realizing they were breaking the law.

Federal Drug Crimes

Federal drug crimes are the second most charged federal offense. The laws governing federal drug crimes are found primarily in Title 13 of the United States Code. Under Sec. 841 of Title 13, it is unlawful to knowingly or intentionally:

  • “Manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance”
  • “To create, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to distribute or dispense, a counterfeit substance”

In addition to the more obvious crime of possession and distribution of an illegal drug, some individuals, such as pharmaceutical professionals, could find they're charged with manipulation or mishandling of controlled substances. For example, under Sec. 843 of Title 13, it is unlawful “to remove, alter, or obliterate a symbol or label required by [law]” or “to refuse or negligently fail to make, keep, or furnish any record, report, notification, declaration, order or order form, statement, invoice, or information required [by law].” Under Section 843, the law doesn't even require the threshold of intent, and those who act negligently could be charged.

There are numerous federal criminal offenses related to drug charges, and if you're accused of a federal criminal drug crime in Pennsylvania, you should talk to a defense attorney who can help you with the specifics of your case.

Federal Firearms Crimes

Federal gun laws can be found under Title 18 of the United States Code. Federal gun laws are concerned with proper licensing, among other issues. Section 922 of Title 18 provides that it is unlawful for anyone:

  • “Except a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer, to engage in the business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in firearms, or in the course of such business to ship, transport, or receive any firearm in interstate or foreign commerce”
  • “Except a licensed importer or licensed manufacturer, to engage in the business of importing or manufacturing ammunition, or in the course of such business, to ship, transport, or receive any ammunition in interstate or foreign commerce”

Pursuant to Section 922, there also are numerous provisions concerning the legal prohibitions against licensed importers and licensed manufacturers. For example, it is illegal for any person, regardless of licensure, to make or sell armor-piercing ammunition unless it is done so at the request of the United States or has been otherwise authorized by the US Attorney General.

Federal White-Collar Crimes

According to the FBI, white-collar crimes:

  • “Are characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust and are not dependent on the application or threat of physical force or violence. The motivation behind these crimes is financial—to obtain or avoid losing money, property, or services or to secure a personal or business advantage.”

Examples of white-collar crimes include:

  • Embezzlement
  • Falsifying financial information
  • Making fraudulent trades
  • Insider trading
  • Identity theft
  • Misusing corporate funds for personal gain

Federal statutes pertaining to various white-collar crimes can be found throughout Title 18 of the United States Code, including in the following sections:

  • Sec. 201. Bribery of public officials and witnesses
  • Sec. 648. Custodians, generally, misusing public funds
  • Sec. 649. Custodians failing to deposit moneys; persons affected
  • Sec. 651. Disbursing officer falsely certifying full payment
  • Sec. 653. Disbursing officer misusing public funds
  • Sec. 655. Theft by bank examiner
  • Sec. 656. Theft, embezzlement, or misapplication by bank officer or employee
  • Sec. 664. Theft or embezzlement from employee benefit plan
  • Sec. 665. Theft or embezzlement from employment and training funds; improper inducement; obstruction of investigations
  • Sec. 666. Theft or bribery concerning programs receiving Federal funds
  • Sec. 669. Theft or embezzlement in connection with health care

Many activities could be considered a federal white-collar crime, and sometimes people find they've been indicted for a white-collar crime they didn't even realize was occurring. When you work with an experienced white-collar criminal defense attorney, your attorney will help you understand how to mount your best defense.

Federal Sex Crimes

Sex crimes are often handled at the state level, but sometimes they can be considered federal offenses, particularly when they involve children. Again, federal sex crimes can be found within Title 18 of the United States Code. In particular, the following statutes detail some of the offenses:

Except for instances of child abuse, many of the federal sex crimes hinge on jurisdiction. For example, the statutes apply to “Whoever, in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the head of any Federal department or agency.” Essentially, this means the location of the offense matters, and if the location of the alleged event can be challenged, it could ultimately fall under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania state penal system.

Can You Expunge a Federal Criminal Record?

If you've been convicted of a federal crime, you might wonder if there are paths to the expungement of your federal criminal record. In the Pennsylvania state penal system, those convicted can oftentimes seek to have their criminal record expunged, but at the federal level, there is no such option.

While you can't expunge your federal criminal record, you could seek federal clemency. Clemency is a word that describes both executive pardons and executive commutations.

Executive Pardons

An executive pardon is given by the sitting president of the United States. A pardon serves to not only show that someone convicted of a federal crime has demonstrated enough rehabilitation to be forgiven for their crimes, it also helps restore certain rights that were revoked as a result of their criminal conviction.

Executive Commutation

Executive commutation is a little easier to get than an executive pardon. A commutation doesn't forgive an individual of their crimes, but it does serve to reduce a prison sentence for those deemed deserving. For example, someone who wasn't appropriately rewarded for cooperating with federal prosecutors may be a good candidate for seeking a commutation of their sentence.

Both pardons and commutations are handled by the Office of the Pardon Attorney in most cases. While anyone who's eligible may apply, it's best to work with an attorney when preparing your federal clemency petition.

Hiring The Right Federal Criminal Defense Attorney

Joseph D. Lento is a skilled and knowledgeable federal criminal defense attorney who will fight tirelessly for you and your loved ones. To learn how Mr. Lento and his dedicated team at the Lento Law Firm can help you today, call 888-535-3686.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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