Anatomy of a Federal Criminal Law Case – Part One: Investigation

A federal criminal law case starts with an investigation, triggered in one of a number of ways: unlike a bank robbery where the event itself triggers the investigation, in most white collar criminal cases a federal regulatory (the SEC, one or another Medicare program safeguard contractor, the IRS, etc.) gets wind of improper conduct, or a federal criminal law investigative agency – FBI, DEA, ATF, ICE, etc. – comes across information about criminal conduct. That can happen in one of a number of ways. First, some citizen might see or hear about criminal conduct and report it. Sometimes federal criminal law cases begin with the arrest of someone caught engaging in a criminal act and, in order to save himself, he tells the authorities that he knows of some far more serious criminal conduct.

Example: police stop a man for a traffic violation and discovery he has several prescriptions or bottles of prescription narcotics in other people’s names in his car. Right away, he wants to make a deal. Equally quickly, most local agencies realize there may be far more to the circumstances than just a few bottles of narcotics. So they call in the “feds.” Most police agencies maintain close working ties with federal agencies, often through ongoing local, state and federal task forces.  Turns out maybe that Mr. Traffic Stop got those medications through a health fraud scheme involving doctors and other health professionals, and the narcotics were the “payoff” for the runner (Mr. Traffic Stop) who brought “patients” to unscrupulous doctors or clinics. The “patients” agree to pretend they received all manner of medical treatment from or through the doctors in exchange for cash kickbacks and/or narcotics prescriptions, which they share with the “runner.”

The agent assigned is then assigned to the appropriate Assistant U.S. Attorney. The two work together from then on through the investigative stage and prosecution.

During this process, several investigative techniques are employed: first, public records are researched to find out everything about the targets (the people Mr. Car Stop says were involved), including criminal records and health licensing and discipline (if any). Internal federal computers are employed to cross-check the names against other convicted criminals (or even just acquaintances of accused criminals). Then the investigative activities take off, including trash pulls; surveillance; interviews; search warrant executions, etc. Once the government, in the person of the assigned Assistant United States Attorney, decides there is enough to charge one or another target, either a criminal complaint is issued and the target arrested, or an indictment is obtained from the grand jury. More on all thais to follow in Part 2.