What is a target letter?
A target letter is a notification from the United States Attorney that informs a suspect that he or she is under investigation by a federal agency and that charges will be pursued through a grand jury. A target letter may also inform the recipient that he or she is being called as a witness to testify before the grand jury.
United States Attorneys offices’ practices are not uniform across the country, and neither are target letters, and may contain different information and warnings. It may offer a brief explanation of what a grand jury is and what its role is in the prosecution of federal crimes. The letter may also inform the recipient of what the suspected criminal activity is and warn the recipient that he or she is prohibited from destroying any potential evidence relating to the suspected criminal activity.
If the letter is seeking testimony before a grand jury, a target letter may inform a suspect of his or her rights when testifying before grand jury, including:
- The criminal activity the target is suspected of committing;
- The suspect’s right to freedom from self-incrimination, i.e., one cannot be forced to make statements against oneself in a criminal investigation;
A target letter may also describe the specific charges that the U.S. Attorney will seek and a description of the sentence that the government will seek if the target is convicted.
What to do if you receive a target letter
Immediately contact an experienced federal defense lawyer. An experienced federal defense lawyer can communicate directly with the prosecutor and agents and can gain some insight about the nature of the charges and evidence against you. In many instances, once an understanding of the investigation is gained, a meeting, frequently called a “proffer” can be set up to discuss the pending charges. This is an opportunity to provide documents and other information to the U.S. Attorney to show that you have not committed a crime or are more appropriately treated as a witness to a crime than the subject of an indictment by a grand jury. In some instances, the meeting may be useful to gain an idea of the prosecution’s theories of how a crime was committed and who committed it, even if an agreement cannot be reached about the client’s lack of guilt.
What not to do if you receive a target letter
Do not, under any circumstances, merely ignore the letter. If you have received the letter, the U.S. Attorney already believes it has sufficient evidence to obtain an indictment from a grand jury. Ignoring the letter will virtually guarantee that you are indicted, as a grand jury normally receives evidence from the U.S. Attorney, federal agents, and cooperating witnesses in private. If you do not respond, the U.S. Attorney and grand jury will not have the benefit of your evidence and your perspective on the charges.
Do not contact other individuals you believe may be involved, as doing so could be construed as obstruction of justice and lead to additional charges or harsher sentencing if convicted. Do not destroy, alter, or manufacture evidence of any kind. These actions will almost certainly lead to charges and, again, could result in additional charges for obstruction of justice or harsher sentencing parameters.
Finally, do not engage in interviews or make statements to prosecutors or agents. Even if you truly believe that you are not guilty of any crime, your statements can be used against you. Your side of the story must be methodically presented to the U.S. Attorney in order to ensure the best possible result.
Negotiated and reduced charges
In some instances, the United States will have overwhelming evidence against a target. If this is the case, an experienced federal defense lawyer can negotiate reduced charges and a reduced potential sentence without the U.S. Attorney seeking a grand jury indictment. In the case of economic crimes investigations, a civil settlement may be able to be negotiated with the U.S. Attorney, rather than the filing of criminal charges.
Do all suspects in federal criminal investigations receive a target letter?
In short, no. If the U.S. Attorney believes that a suspect might flee the jurisdiction or country, destroy evidence, or tamper with or influence other witnesses, he or she will not be notified, and will be arrested upon indictment by a grand jury. Also, if a case is more routine, the target will not usually be notified of the grand jury. An individual who was arrested while in possession of drugs on his or her person would likely not be notified prior to seeking an indictment from a grand jury.
Receiving a target letter from the Department of Justice is a stressful and potentially life-altering event. However, hiring an experienced federal defense lawyer will allow you to be informed and prepared to present your side of the story, or to be ready for the fight ahead.