In many cases, the first time you learn you are the subject of a federal criminal investigation is upon receipt of a “target letter” from the Department of Justice. If you receive a target letter, you should immediately seek assistance from experienced white collar defense counsel. 

What are the DOJ Classifications in a White Collar Investigation?

As a general matter, there are three classifications DOJ will make in a white collar investigation: witnesses, subjects, or targets. 

Witnesses: A witness is a person who is believed to know about a violation of federal laws. The Department of Justice may send a letter to witnesses to obtain more information related to a criminal investigation. Although you may not be currently the focus of the criminal investigation, you cannot be compelled to provide information that may incriminate you. If you receive a letter identifying you as a witness, it is essential to obtain qualified criminal counsel to discuss any information you may have with an attorney before testifying in front of a grand jury or making a statement to law enforcement.

Subjects: A subject is a person who falls within the scope of a criminal investigation, but the Department of Justice has insufficient information to classify you as a “target” of the investigation. If you are considered a subject, it is possible criminal charges may be filed against you based on any information you provide to a federal agent or the grand jury. Therefore, it is essential that you consult with a criminal defense attorney on receipt of information you are a subject in a white collar investigation. 

Targets: A target, as defined by the Justice Manual, is a person who is already connected to a crime. This means the Department of Justice already has substantial evidence linking a target to a crime and, in all likelihood, will proceed with charges if the grand jury issues an indictment. If you are identified as a target, this is the most serious classification and you should consult with a criminal defense attorney immediately. 

What Is a Target Letter?

A target letter sent by the Department of Justice is a formal notification of an investigation for criminal charges. Receiving a target letter does not necessarily mean the government is prosecuting for a crime. It is the Department of Justice’s way of notifying you of your status, which is a requirement if the DOJ seeks to issue a subpoena for your testimony. Target letters generally describe the nature of the criminal investigation and provide notice of constitutional rights. In addition to testifying, you may be asked to produce documents related to the investigation of a crime. A sample target letter can be found on the Department of Justice’s website. 

How Serious Is a Target Letter?

Target letters are generally very serious matters. If you receive a letter with a subpoena, you must appear at the grand jury proceeding, or you will be held in contempt of court for violating a subpoena. 

Some offices will issue target letters that do not require an appearance before a grand jury. Like a target letter that comes with a subpoena, prompt action is required whenever you receive any kind of notice from the DOJ — this is particularly true if the notice is a formal target letter.

What Happens in a Grand Jury Investigation?

A grand jury is a body of citizens assembled to review evidence the federal government has to support proceeding with criminal charges against an individual. Only the grand jury members, a federal prosecutor, and witnesses are allowed to participate in a grand jury proceeding. The prosecutor calls witnesses and lays out all of the evidence against an accused. After reviewing the prosecutor’s case, the grand jury votes to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support an indictment for a crime. 

Although a witness may not have counsel present when testifying before a grand jury, a witness may consult with an attorney privately during the proceeding. A witness may seek counsel to protect his or her constitutional rights and prevent self-incrimination.

Should I Talk to Federal Agents?

Although you must appear at a grand jury proceeding if you receive a subpoena, you are not required to talk to federal agents regarding an investigation of a crime. Often, federal agents will attempt to question you before the grand jury stage to learn any information you might have. Although the agents are not required to inform you of your right to counsel if you are not in custody, it is in your best interest to obtain a criminal defense attorney before speaking to federal agents. If you are not a target of an investigation, any information you provide may assist the federal agents in turning the spotlight on you. If you are the subject or target of an investigation, an experienced attorney may be able to assist in clearing you of any wrongdoing. 

Consult with a Georgia Federal Criminal Defense Attorney Today

Receiving notice that you are involved in a federal criminal investigation is a serious matter. Although a target letter is not a criminal indictment, it is a significant step in the criminal investigation process, and it is essential to get out in front of any potential criminal charges alleged against you. If you are identified as a witness, subject, or target of a federal grand jury investigation, it is in your best interest to consult with an attorney who has experience in federal criminal defense. Griffin Durham Tanner & Clarkson has years of experience representing those accused of white-collar and other federal crimes. If you received a Department of Justice target letter, contact Griffin Durham Tanner & Clarkson today.