Sometimes, detectives and prosecutors will use a target letter to tell a person that they are a suspect in an investigation.
What is a Target Letter?
When a federal prosecutor believes that you have committed a crime, they can send you a target letter. A target letter essentially notifies you that a criminal investigation focuses on you. Most often, prosecutors use target letters in white-collar cases. You may already be aware of an investigation against you because federal agents have tried to question you, or the letter may come as a surprise. Either way, you should take this letter seriously.
Usually, a target letter notifies you of certain things, including:
- The fact that you are the focus of a federal grand jury investigation;
- The crime or crimes for which you may be accused;
- Your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent;
- Information about getting the assistance of court-appointed counsel.
- Your obligation not to destroy any evidence, such as financial documents or other relevant information
- A suggestion that you reach out to the prosecutor to discuss the case.
DO NOT destroy any documents related to the case. The court could construe any such destruction as obstruction of justice.
Frequently Asked Questions
Receiving a target letter can feel overwhelming. You will probably have a lot of questions. While hiring an experienced attorney to help you navigate these questions will give you the most clarity, some of your immediate concerns may be answered below.
What should I do if I receive a target letter?
In order to get the best outcome after receiving a target letter, you need to hire a good, experienced federal criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The earlier you obtain sound legal advice in response to a target letter, the better your chances are that you can minimize your criminal exposure.
Firstly, an attorney may be able to help you convince the prosecutor involved that they should drop the investigation against you. However, even if the government moves forward with a criminal indictment, a defense attorney retained early will be able to obtain information. Sometimes, an attorney can negotiate a pre-indictment agreement to resolve the case.
It is always better to engage with a prosecutor early in a case, when he or she has not spent significant time on the matter, because there is typically more room for negotiations.
Should I talk to federal investigators?
No. You should not speak with investigating agents until you have spoken to an attorney. If you decide to speak to the investigators, you should only do so with your lawyer present.
Understandably, you may want to reach out to the prosecutor or investigators upon receiving the target letter in the hopes of explaining away any criminal accusation, especially if it appears like a mistake or misunderstanding. Do not give in to that temptation. Federal investigators, like virtually all law enforcement officers, have experience in getting people to give up information. Despite your best intentions, all of your statements can be used against you.
Of course, after you have consulted with your attorney, you may both come to the conclusion that you should speak with investigators. Many potential benefits could outweigh the risks. Perhaps you can negotiate for immunity. Perhaps you can provide additional information to help further the investigation. You should only make that determination, however, after consulting an attorney and determining that such an approach would not hurt you.
Do I have to cooperate with an investigation?
You are not necessarily required to cooperate with an investigation. However, you might benefit from providing cooperation. A seasoned criminal defense attorney will be able to help you determine what options you have with regards to cooperation. Normally, you will want to assess your chances of success at trial before deciding that cooperation is the best route for you.
Are prosecutors required to send target letters?
Federal prosecutors are not required to send target letters. Typically, investigators avoid target letters because they do not want to provide an incentive for those suspected of criminal conduct to obstruct the investigation or try to flee the country.
Does a target letter mean I will be indicted?
Not necessarily. While getting a target letter means you may be indicted, there is still a chance that you will not.
Indeed, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to help you respond to the letter and negotiate a resolution with the prosecutor that does not involve an indictment.
Can I move to dismiss a target letter?
No. Because a target letter comes directly from a prosecutor, not court, a federal judge has no authority to take any action regarding a target letter. Therefore, making a motion in court will have no impact on a target letter.
After investigation, might I be dismissed as a target?
Yes. If you and your attorney are able to negotiate with the prosecutor it may become clear that you should not be the target of an investigation. In this case, a prosecutor may decide to remove you as a target. That said, a prosecutor has no obligation to notify you if you are no longer a target. Fortunately, your attorney could inquire as to your status in an investigation. However, unless you have chosen to have negotiations with the prosecutor to directly resolve the matters against you, less interaction with the prosecutor usually benefits you.
After you receive a target letter, the government will begin its investigation.