Targets, Subjects and Witnesses in Federal Criminal Investigations

Federal prosecutors and agents conducting criminal investigations often talk in terms of “targets”, “subjects”, and “witnesses.”  So what do these terms mean and why are they important?

In laymans’ terms, a target is a person who the government has decided to prosecute if they can whereas a witness is a person the government believes is innocent but may have relevant information.  A subject is somewhere in between – the government has not decided whether they are guilty of a crime or not.

A simple example will illustrate the point.  Let’s image a mortgage fraud investigation where the government learns a borrower falsified their income to get a loan, and the loan officer did their due diligence but did not discover the fraud.  The government will classify the borrower as a target and the loan officer as a witness.  But what about the other parties involved in the loan?  Say, the realtor or the title insurer?  What did they know?  They government may not be sure at first and will therefore classify other parties as subjects until it figures out whether they were parties to the fraud.

The important thing to understand about these categories is that they have no real legal effect.  If a government agent seeks to interview you and says you are “just a witness” there is nothing stopping that agent from taking your statement and using it to prosecute you later.  No judge will dismiss your charges and your statement is probably admissible against you.  So it is not a good idea to rely too heavily on these classifications.

Still, if you are involved in a federal criminal investigation, it is helpful to know how the government has classified you, especially at the beginning.  It can be a useful guide, so long as you take it with a grain of salt.

If you believe you are implicated in an investigation, a federal criminal defense attorney can inquire about your status.  If you are a target or subject, your lawyer may be able to persuade the government to reclassify you, depending on the facts of your case.  Even if you are a witness, seek counsel immediately to ensure you remain a witness.

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