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27 Nov 23

The Role of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Federal Cases in NYC

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Last Updated on: 15th December 2023, 12:37 pm

The Role of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Federal Cases in NYC

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) plays a crucial role in prosecuting federal cases in New York City. The SDNY is responsible for handling a wide range of federal crimes in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester County.

Federal Prosecutors

Federal prosecutors who work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office decide which cases to pursue at the federal level. They have a lot of discretion and independence. Federal prosecutors decide if there is enough evidence to bring charges, what charges to file, whether to offer plea bargains, and what sentences to recommend to the judge.

Some high-profile cases the SDNY has handled include prosecuting terrorists, gang members, white-collar criminals, cybercriminals, and public corruption. The SDNY also investigates securities fraud, investment fraud, corporate fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, racketeering, and narcotics trafficking.

Working with Federal Agencies

Federal prosecutors work closely with federal investigative agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, ICE, USPIS, and SEC. These agencies gather evidence and build cases that the U.S. Attorney’s Office then decides whether to prosecute.

For example, the FBI may investigate a complex financial fraud scheme. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will review the evidence and determine which charges to bring, or whether more investigation is needed first. There is a lot of collaboration between agencies.

Grand Juries

Many federal cases require a grand jury. Prosecutors present evidence to a grand jury, which then votes on whether to issue an indictment charging someone with a crime. An indictment is a formal accusation initiating a criminal case.

Grand juries operate in secret. They have the power to subpoena documents and witnesses when building a case. Grand juries decide whether there is “probable cause” to charge someone but they don’t determine guilt or innocence like a trial jury.

Guilty Pleas & Trials

Many federal cases end in a guilty plea rather than going to trial. Defendants often plead guilty in exchange for a plea agreement with lesser charges or a lighter recommended sentence. Up to 90-95% of federal cases end in a plea bargain.

If a case does go to trial, federal prosecutors have to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury. Trials can be long and intense with opening statements, witness testimony, evidence presentation, and closing arguments. Federal prosecutors have to try cases effectively to win convictions.

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Sentencing Recommendations

After a conviction, federal prosecutors make sentencing recommendations to the judge. There are federal sentencing guidelines judges must consider but they aren’t mandatory anymore. Judges have discretion to impose lesser or greater sentences than what prosecutors ask for.

Things that impact the sentence include the facts of the case, criminal history, acceptance of responsibility, and assistance to the government. Many factors go into sentencing which is why it varies case by case.

Appeals

The U.S. Attorney’s Office also handles appeals of cases they prosecute. If a defendant appeals their conviction or sentence, federal prosecutors have to defend the case in the Appeals Court and argue why the judge ruled correctly according to the law.

Appeals can result in convictions being upheld or overturned and sentences being affirmed or changed. Federal prosecutors have to comprehensively analyze trial court decisions that get appealed.

Famous Cases

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for SDNY has prosecuted many famous defendants over the years – from politicians to celebrities to Wall Street executives. Some high-profile cases include:

  • Paul Manafort – Trump’s former campaign manager convicted of tax and bank fraud
  • El Chapo – Mexican drug cartel leader convicted on drug trafficking charges
  • Michael Cohen – Trump’s personal attorney convicted of campaign finance violations and other crimes
  • Bernie Madoff – Wall Street financier who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history
  • Martha Stewart – Convicted for obstructing an investigation into her stock trades

The SDNY is known for prosecuting complex white-collar cases that involve public corruption, organized crime, terrorism, cybercrime, and major fraud schemes that impact investors, markets, and the public.

Controversies

While federal prosecutors perform an important public service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has also faced criticism and controversies over the years when their conduct has been questioned.

For example, prosecutors have been accused of pressuring innocent people into pleading guilty. The threat of lengthy prison sentences can coerce people into accepting plea deals even if they are not guilty.

In other cases, prosecutors have failed to turn over key evidence to the defense which is a violation of the Brady rule. This has led appellate courts to overturn some convictions that were secured unfairly by the government.

There have also been allegations of federal prosecutors abusing their power or having conflicts of interest in high profile cases. They wield immense authority so checks and balances on federal prosecutors are important.

Oversight

While federal prosecutors have wide discretion, they do answer to supervisors within the Department of Justice. Each U.S. Attorney’s Office has policies, protocols, and general oversight in place.

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Federal judges also serve as a check on prosecutors regarding what evidence is admissible, questions asked of witnesses, jury instructions, and sentencing decisions. Defense attorneys rigorously test the prosecution’s case during cross-examination and make objections to improper conduct.

Additionally, the Office of Professional Responsibility investigates allegations of misconduct against federal prosecutors when formal complaints are made about unethical behavior. OPR recommends disciplinary action when appropriate.

Conclusion

Federal prosecutors have an immense responsibility in bringing cases that impact public safety, justice, security, and the economy. The U.S. Attorney’s Office handles cases locally, nationally, and even internationally given New York’s global importance.

While they wield substantial authority, federal prosecutors also face great public and media scrutiny. It’s a high-pressure job that requires good judgment, integrity, ethics, and constant learning as criminal activity continues to evolve in our digital age.