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How Do Federal Criminal Investigations Typically Unfold in New York?

How Do Federal Criminal Investigations Typically Unfold in New York?

Federal criminal investigations in New York can be complex, drawn-out affairs involving multiple law enforcement agencies. Here’s a look at how these probes typically unfold:

Initial Suspicions

Investigations often begin when federal agencies like the FBI or IRS receive tips or complaints about potential criminal activity. They may also initiate cases based on abnormalities that come up during routine audits or surveillance operations.

For instance, suspicious transactions identified through anti-money laundering monitoring may trigger probes into financial crimes. Surveillance operations that turn up evidence of drug trafficking or public corruption could likewise spur investigations.

At this early stage, agents start gathering basic information to determine whether a full-blown criminal probe is warranted.

Opening an Investigation

If preliminary inquiries yield enough evidence of potential crimes, federal agencies formally open investigations. This allows them to use tools like subpoenas, search warrants, and wiretaps (with court approval).

In New York, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and Eastern District of New York (EDNY) often take the lead on federal criminal cases in NYC and Long Island. Agencies like the FBI, IRS, DEA, and Postal Inspection Service support them.

Prosecutors may also work with the New York Attorney General’s office if state crimes are suspected. Joint federal-state investigations are common, especially in public corruption and financial fraud cases.

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Christine Twomey
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Guerline Menard
Guerline Menard
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Keisha Parris
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Taïko Beauty
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Developing Leads

Once an investigation is underway, agents start gathering evidence to identify targets and build cases. This may involve:

  • Interviewing witnesses, informants, and subjects
  • Issuing subpoenas for documents, phone/email records, and other evidence
  • Obtaining warrants for wiretaps, phone tracking, and electronic surveillance
  • Analyzing financial records to uncover money laundering and fraud
  • Using undercover operatives and confidential informants
  • Conducting physical and electronic surveillance

Investigators use these techniques to flesh out the details of criminal schemes, identify key players, and collect solid evidence tying targets to specific crimes.

Securing Indictments

Once sufficient evidence is gathered, prosecutors present it to grand juries to obtain criminal indictments. Grand juries hear testimony from investigators and witnesses and review evidence.

If persuaded that probable cause exists, grand jurors issue indictments formally charging suspects. Common federal charges in New York include racketeering, fraud, bribery, embezzlement, money laundering, drug trafficking, and public corruption.

High-profile targets may be asked to surrender for arrest. For lower-level suspects, arrests often involve early morning raids and perp walks.

Plea Bargaining

After indictment, negotiations over plea deals often occur. Defendants weigh the evidence against them and calculate their odds at trial.

Most federal cases end in guilty pleas – over 90% in New York. Defendants plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges or lighter sentences.

Cooperators provide testimony and information about crimes involving higher-level players. This helps prosecutors build cases up the chain of command.


A minority of defendants reject plea deals and proceed to trial – under 10% in New York’s federal courts. The SDNY and EDNY see some of the highest profile federal trials in the country.

Recent examples include the convictions of Keith Raniere in a sex cult racketeering case and Lawrence Ray in a college extortion scheme.

Federal prosecutors have massive resources and high conviction rates at trial – around 85% nationwide. New York juries are also notoriously tough on criminal defendants.


For convicted defendants, the final stage involves sentencing. Federal judges use U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to calculate advisory sentencing ranges based on factors like:

  • Severity of the crime
  • Criminal history
  • Acceptance of responsibility
  • Cooperation with prosecutors

Judges ultimately decide sentences within statutory parameters. Even with guilty pleas, federal sentences can be harsh – decades in prison are common for serious crimes.


After sentencing, the appeals process begins. Convicted defendants can raise issues like evidentiary errors, lack of due process, and excessive sentences.

But appeals courts heavily favor trial court decisions – federal criminal convictions are overturned in only around 15% of cases.

Appeals in New York go to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In rare cases, the Supreme Court may take up appeals from there.

Key Takeaways

In summary, federal criminal probes in New York often progress as follows:

  1. Suspicious activity triggers preliminary inquiries
  2. Formal investigations open with subpoenas and warrants
  3. Witnesses interviewed, records analyzed, surveillance conducted
  4. Grand jury indictments secured
  5. Most defendants plead guilty
  6. Small minority proceed to trial
  7. Convicted defendants sentenced, then appeal

With its concentration of financial industries and power centers, New York sees more complex, high-stakes federal investigations than anywhere else in the country. Agencies like the FBI and IRS team up with seasoned federal prosecutors to take on some of the nation’s biggest criminal cases.

High-profile probes – into public corruption, organized crime, corporate fraud and more – are familiar sights in New York’s federal courts. Understanding how these intricate investigations unfold provides insight into criminal justice at its highest levels.

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