The Department of Justice (DOJ) falls within the ambit of the Federal government. It is responsible for the enforcement and administration of federal law. The prosecutors are United States Attorneys, and members of the Office of the Attorney General. The DOJ has both judicial and investigative elements, including many federal agencies, such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The prosecutor in charge of cases will very often work with the investigating agencies for the crimes to be prosecuted. The DOJ covers investigations from both civil issues (such as child support issues and tort actions) and criminal matters (murders or federal drugs crimes, for example). The DOJ and its subsidiaries will be responsible for gathering evidence to prosecute a crime. Sometimes, this might involve searching property. This will require a warrant issued by a judge. If the evidence leads to an arrest, it must be an arrest stemming from probable cause. Many times, the DOJ will obtain an arrest warrant to ensure the arrest conforms to the Constitutional requirements.
After the agencies have gathered sufficient evidence, the prosecutor will evaluate the case to decide whether the case should be presented to the Federal Grand Jury who will determine whether or not to issue an indictment. An indictment means that there is enough evidence for a grand jury to believe that the person committed a crime, with the basic charges lodged against him or her. The evidence and testimony presented to the grand jury is secret, and so is the ultimate vote by the grand jury of whether or not to indict the suspect. In New York, all felony cases must be presented to the grand jury. This requirement is true of the DOJ – all felony crimes must be submitted to the federal government. Just like the district attorney’s office in New York represents the state government in cases that arise under state law, the U.S. Attorney’s office represents the United States in federal cases, which arise from federal law. They do not represent individuals, and therefore members of the DOJ or the U.S. Attorney’s office cannot give civilians legal advice.
Once the grand jury has indicted the suspect, the defendant will proceed to the initial hearing. The defendant will then proceed to a hearing where he or she will hear the formal charges, enter a plea, and determine whether bail or bond is required for his or her release. The defendant should be appointed an attorney before the hearing.
Notably, the DOJ does not just seek out evidence from suspects – sometimes targets or witnesses will also be required to speak to the DOJ or other agencies. Sometimes, the prosecutor might suggest for a witness or target to come in for a ‘proffer interview.’ These interviews require the target to give information to the DOJ, and they will not use the information against this person – only if the person is truthful. The DOJ can unilaterally decide if the target lied during the interview, and then, that target faces liability. If the DOJ believes the target, then they merely become a witness in the primary target’s case, and receive some immunity or lowered sentence. Either way, most attorneys are uncomfortable with this arrangement because the DOJ then gets unfettered access to information while the client faces imprisonment.
Regardless, DOJ investigations usually involve multiple federal agencies, and should not be taken lightly. Whether you are a suspect, a target or a witness, it is always a good idea to seek legal counsel to determine the process, how to behave, and what your rights are. The DOJ has the full power of the federal government behind it, and it is not a good idea to test their efficiency.