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Targets, Subjects, and Witnesses in Federal Investigations

October 6, 2021 Federal Criminal Attorneys

The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) mission provides enforcement of federal laws and the authority to prosecute anyone who violates them. With its broad powers, the Department examines the actions of individuals as well as companies for potential violations of federal law, especially criminal activity.

Providing an Immediate Response
Anyone who becomes part of a DOJ investigation needs to reply to any aspect of the matter promptly. Best approaches include hiring a seasoned defense attorney with experience in criminal law. In addition, maintaining confidentiality and preparing defense documentation provides the basis for responding to any charges that may occur. In all cases, a cooperative attitude provides the optimum way to proceed.

Discovering Status
The government classifies individuals involved in a DOJ investigation as a witness, subject or target. Most people may not know why the government wants to talk to them, a matter of great concern and stress. However, attorneys may deduce the reason in some situations by reviewing materials such as a subpoena or request. While no one wants to fit in the “target” category, the safest approach assumes the most severe option.

Understanding the Role of Witness
The government may want to talk to someone who knows about a crime to find out any information that relates to it. While the DOJ does not usually charge a witness with a crime, the facts in an investigation determine the outcome. Therefore, a witness does not need to have firsthand experience in observing a crime as it occurs.

Background information that can help determine the guilt or innocence of someone else may provide all that the DOJ wants to obtain. However, law enforcement officials do not offer protection to witnesses unless a prior agreement ensures it. Therefore, any misrepresentation of the facts can allow a witness to face charges for punishable offenses.

Becoming a Subject
A status not as serious as a target and not as potentially unimportant as a witness, a subject designation contains elements of both. A subject’s behavior may attract attention as suspicious or unethical conduct. When the government believes that someone has connections to a crime, the person becomes a subject. However, when law enforcement’s investigations have not determined that someone committed a provable crime, “target” becomes too extreme.

A grand jury can subpoena a subject for questioning when a person’s conduct falls within the scope of its investigation. In addition, anyone who becomes a subject can face charges of obstruction of justice by destroying evidence or lying to a U.S. Attorney. Therefore, a decision to request a criminal defense attorney to participate in any meeting provides valuable guidance for subjects.

Realizing What Target Means
Representation by a criminal defense attorney becomes a necessity when a person becomes a target of an investigation. A prosecutor or a grand jury already possesses substantial evidence that links someone to a crime. In addition, the prosecutor considers the person as a presumed defendant. When the government designates someone as a target, it sends a strong signal of involvement in criminal activity
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The overlap between the witness, subject and target categories may seem straightforward on paper, but the designations can change as the government pursues its investigations. A person may prepare a response based on the status remaining the same, a risky approach to a matter that can change the quality of life for years to come. Thus, the first indication of involvement in a criminal investigation requires immediate contact with a seasoned and successful criminal defense lawyer.

Preparing for the Outcome
Most people’s lack of experience with the criminal justice system creates a disadvantage when they become a focus of the DOJ. Navigating the legal system requires knowledge and experience, and trying to go it alone can rarely produce a good outcome. However, an experienced criminal defense attorney can make a significant difference. In addition, avoiding significant penalties provides benefits that even an innocent person needs to ensure makes representation essential.

Attorney’s fees provide more value than they cost. Experienced legal representation can save much more money than attorneys’ fair fees for their knowledge and skill. But, again, an unknowledgeable person in unfamiliar territory can make costly mistakes. Attorneys work to prevent charges against defendants and try to prevent the loss of time at work. Even when a guilty verdict arrives, a criminal defense attorney negotiates to obtain lower fines. The legal system works best when knowledgeable criminal attorneys provide the representation that defendants deserve.

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