Skip to main content

What We Do

Every year the Criminal Section receives and reviews several thousand complaints from citizens, law enforcement agencies, and organizations describing possible violations of the federal criminal civil rights statutes. These complaints may be received directly by the Criminal Section in the form of letters and phone calls or by referral from federal investigative agencies, such as FBI, OIG, BOP, and the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. The majority of complaints allege misconduct by law enforcement officers such as state or local police officers, federal law enforcement officers, prison superintendents, correctional officers, state and county judges, or other public officials.

There are five general stages in bringing potential criminal civil rights violations to prosecution. In sequence, they are:

  1. receipt of complaint
  2. investigation
  3. grand jury
  4. indictment
  5. trial

Each complaint received is analyzed to decide whether an investigation is appropriate.

If an investigation is recommended, the FBI (the primary investigative agency) conducts the investigation by interviewing witnesses and collecting evidence and sends its report both to the responsible attorney within the Section, as well as to the U.S. Attorney's office with responsibility for federal prosecutions within the geographic area where the incident occurred. When the investigation is completed, the prosecutors must then decide whether there is sufficient evidence to prove a federal violation and legal authority to pursue the case in federal court. Evidence considered may include statements from witnesses and victims, medical records, physical evidence, and official records documenting the incident.

[Note: the federal criminal civil rights laws have a five year statute of limitations from the date of the incident, except in cases involving an intentional killing (generally not bound by the statute of limitations) and religious interference incidents (seven year statute of limitations)].

In order to prosecute a felony case where the defendant could face imprisonment of more than a year, evidence must first be presented to a grand jury, which then votes on whether an indictment should be returned. If an indictment is returned, the Criminal Section often prosecutes the case jointly with the local U.S. Attorney in the federal District where the incident occurred.

There are times when the Section or the U.S. Attorney may decide to prosecute the case without direct involvement by the other office. The Criminal Section also prosecutes juvenile offenders, who may be involved in hate crimes such as cross burnings and vandalism of homes or churches.

In the areas of police misconduct, housing rights, and access to health care, the Criminal Section may refer complaints that do not present a criminal violation to other Sections within the Civil Rights Division that have authority under separate civil statutes to file suit when a pattern of abuse is discovered.

While not all complaints received result in investigation, nor all investigations lead to a grand jury or eventual prosecution, the Criminal Section seeks to review all possible violations to ensure that individual liberties are protected. Often, local authorities will take the lead in prosecuting violent conduct under state statutes even though such conduct also constitutes a violation of federal criminal civil rights laws. In such cases, the local prosecutive effort is presumed to vindicate federal interests.

Infrequently, however, even if there has been a local prosecution, it may be determined (often with the support of the local authorities) that a subsequent federal prosecution is necessary to remedy the criminal wrongdoing. The Supreme Court has upheld this "dual prosecution" policy as not violating the Constitution's double jeopardy clause, since the federal Government is a separate sovereign from the state, charging a crime under its unique authority, even though the case may be based on the same incident.

In addition to prosecuting cases, the Criminal Section actively participates in providing technical assistance and information to the public, law enforcement and other Government agencies regarding the federal criminal civil rights laws by attending conferences, providing training, and making recommendations for legislation to further the protection of individual rights and liberties.


Prosecutors, paralegals, and other support staff work together in reviewing complaints and bringing investigations to prosecution. Our attorneys come from diverse backgrounds, and many have prior experience as litigators -- either as prosecutors or as public defenders -- at the federal, state, or local level.

In addition, the Criminal Section works with numerous organizations, both within and outside the Department of Justice, which provide additional investigative resources and substantive expertise related to federal criminal civil rights violations and other related, potential federal crimes or civil violations. >
Updated August 6, 2015