As its name suggests, a target letter is a notice from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal prosecutor that you are the target of a criminal investigation.

Target letters contain information on the crime being investigated, and they include instructions on what they expect you to do next. This usually involves appearing before a grand jury or meeting with an Assistant United States Attorney. 

It’s important to note that target letters are not indictments, but if you or someone you love has received a target letter, it’s very likely that you could be indicted soon. An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can review the circumstances of your case and help you develop a plan of action.

What does it mean to be a target of a federal investigation?

People who are involved in federal investigations fall into one of these categories:

  1. Witness – The government believes the person has information that could help prove the guilt or innocence of another person under investigation.
  2. Subject – The person has engaged in conduct that might be suspicious or unethical, but the prosecutor is unsure if they have committed a provable crime and needs to investigate further. 
  3. Target – There is substantial evidence linking this person to a crime, and the government has focused its investigation on them. 

Understanding these categories can be helpful in knowing where you fit into an investigation when you are contacted, but you should remember that they are fluid and can change as an investigation progresses. 

For example, it is possible for a witness to become a suspect and then a target as more evidence is revealed.

What should I do if I receive a federal target letter?

If you receive a federal target letter, your first step should be to retain a federal defense attorney. Your lawyer will review the letter with you and advise you on the next best steps for handling the situation.

This can involve coaching and preparation for appearance in front of a grand jury, instructions on how to not impede the investigation and advice on how to communicate about the case with outsiders (it’s important to not reveal any details of an active federal investigation).

If you have received a federal target letter, it’s possible that the prosecutor has already decided to indict you and has sent the letter in an effort to secure a guilty plea. In these cases, if there is no successful plea bargain, the case will likely go to trial. Your attorney’s advice can be invaluable here, as they can estimate your chances of a successful resolution if the case goes to trial.

The federal criminal justice system is complex. Your attorney will keep you informed throughout the process and will help ease the stress of this anxious time.

What should I not do if I receive a federal target letter?

Don’t flee, and don’t destroy evidence. Destroying evidence in a federal investigation is a separate federal crime that can add 20 years to your sentence.

Don’t speak to investigators alone, and don’t contact the prosecutor directly. While it might be tempting to politely reach out to investigators or the prosecutor in your case and explain your situation, it’s important to remember that these people are not your friends. Speaking to them alone will only give them more information to use against you later.

It might feel impolite or like you’re coming off as defensive, but if you are directly contacted by investigators before you’ve had an opportunity to retain an attorney, you should inform them that you will be happy to speak with them… once you’ve spoken with your attorney first. 

They might try to pressure you or guilt you into talking (“Why do you need an attorney if you have nothing to hide?”), but stay firm. It is your constitutional right.

Contact Robert M. Helfend today

This can be an anxious time. Federal investigations are no joke, and if you or someone you love has received a federal target letter, it will impact every aspect of your life, from your work life to personal relationships.

However, know that you’re not alone in this. An attorney can be your steadfast advocate inside and outside of the courtroom, fighting for your freedom against the federal government and helping to ease the nervousness along the way.

Robert M. Helfend is a specialist in federal cases. Based in the Los Angeles area and practicing since 1984, he has earned recent honors from his peers being named on to the National Trial Lawyers Top 100, SuperLawyers and Lead Counsel. Call today for your free case evaluation – 800-834-6434.