A federal investigation should certainly not be taken lightly. How scared you should be will often depend on what you are being investigated for and whether there is incriminating evidence out there to be found. So generally, the answer here is the often-heard and frustratingly vague lawyer response – it depends. Do not to speak with an investigator, lie or misrepresent yourself to an investigator as charges could follow after those conversations. Even if you believe you did nothing wrong, or if you are asked to “help” an investigator, it is best to consult an attorney before you make any statement to law enforcement. Get legal counsel immediately because time will most likely be of the essence.
The bad news
Investigations into federal crimes are done by federal agencies, like the FBI and DEA, rather than local law enforcement. As you might expect, these federal agencies have more resources at their disposal than local police. They are working with more advanced technology, and they have vast networks and databases to pull from when looking for information. Consequently, if you have something to hide, federal investigators have many ways to go about finding it.
The good news
Regardless of the topic of the investigation, you can take some comfort in the fact that not all investigations lead to criminal indictment. Investigation is just the first step in the federal criminal process. Sometimes the search for evidence bears no or very little fruit, and the subject of the investigation is never charged with any crimes.
You also have some constitutional protections in an investigation. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution requires that all search warrants, arrest warrants, and warrantless arrests be based on probable cause. “Courts usually find probable cause when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed (for an arrest) or when evidence of the crime is present in the place to be searched (for a search).” This standard can provide some assurance that your life cannot be invaded merely at law enforcement’s whim or hunch.
Additionally, you are protected by the Fifth Amendment in the event federal investigators want to interrogate you. You cannot be forced to be a witness against yourself. In other words, you do not have to answer investigators’ questions. Even if you do agree to an interview, you can and should have an attorney present with you to help protect you from incriminating yourself.
Whether you are considered a witness, person of interest or the actual subject of an investigation, an arrest may result. The Constitution offers certain protections. You have the right to defend yourself in court, which comes with the right to have an attorney assist in your defense. Maybe not all the evidence gathered against you is credible, or perhaps you have evidence that contradicts what law enforcement found in their investigation. Ultimately, a federal investigation only becomes a federal conviction if enough evidence is gathered and presented to a jury to convince that jury you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt – a standard much higher than probable cause. A knowledgeable attorney will be a tremendous help in protecting your rights and ensuring that federal officials do not overstep legal boundaries.