Dealing with federal law enforcement can be considerably different than with local or even state police. Sometimes federal investigators or agents who suspect someone of a criminal offense or knowing something about a crime just show up unexpectedly to “ask a few questions” or “have a chat.” They may be wearing business clothes rather than uniforms. It may be easy to forget that they’re law enforcement officers and that you have the right not to submit to their questioning or to talk to them without legal representation.
Too many people make the mistake of talking to them on their own and – even worse – not telling the truth. They think that as long as they aren’t under oath or have been told that they’re a suspect, they can lie without consequences. Remember that lying to a federal agent, investigator or another official can get you charged with a federal crime and sentenced to federal prison for up to five years (more if the lie is related to a terrorism case). Just ask Martha Stewart.
Many people think that lifestyle maven Martha Stewart was sent to federal prison for securities fraud. While the case involved that, a jury actually convicted her of lying to and obstructing federal investigators.
Not every lie to every federal agent is worthy of prosecution. It depends on how relevant or “material” the lie is to the investigation. Under federal law, it’s a crime when a person “knowingly and willfully “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation.”
Whatever the situation, and no matter how innocent you may be of any wrongdoing, it’s never smart to submit to questioning by federal authorities (or any law enforcement authorities) without having legal guidance. Don’t worry about whether you think it makes you “look guilty.” You can and should politely but firmly assert this right.