Targets, Subjects, and Witnesses in Federal Investigations
Being involved in a federal investigation can be scary and confusing. The government may label you a target, subject, or witness, but what do these terms really mean? This article explains the differences and provides tips for navigating a federal probe.
What is a Target?
A target is someone the prosecutor believes committed a crime and intends to charge. According to the Justice Department, a target is a “putative defendant” against whom the government has substantial evidence linking them to a crime.
Some signs you may be a target:
- Receiving a “target letter” saying you’re under investigation
- Having your home or office searched via a warrant
- Being asked to testify before a grand jury
What is a Subject?
Subjects are in a precarious position – you’re not yet a target, but you’re also more than just a witness. Like targets, subjects should invoke the Fifth Amendment if called to testify before a grand jury.
If you’re a subject, tread carefully. Consider hiring a lawyer to avoid self-incrimination. Your status could change to target as the investigation progresses.
What is a Witness?
Witnesses have information relevant to the case but are not suspected of wrongdoing. For example, a witness may have documents or testimony that implicates others.
Being a witness is the best position, but that could change. If you misstep during questioning, you could implicate yourself unintentionally. Consult a lawyer before speaking to investigators to avoid this risk.
Tips for Navigating an Investigation
- Don’t rely on your designation. Your status as target, subject or witness can change at any time.
- Invoke your rights. Targets and subjects should assert their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before testifying.
- Say nothing without a lawyer. Even if you’re “just a witness,” speak to a lawyer first to avoid accidentally incriminating yourself.
- Be proactive. Don’t wait to be contacted – hire a lawyer immediately to get ahead of the investigation.
- Ask questions. Have your lawyer find out what offenses are under investigation and who the targets are.
- Tread carefully. Even minor misstatements could lead to charges of obstruction of justice or lying to investigators.
- Seek experienced counsel. Retain a lawyer with specific experience in federal cases. The rules and stakes are higher than state cases.