Here is a hypothetical scenario. You receive a letter in the mail from the Tennessee U.S. States Attorney’s Office. You open the envelope, and the letter says you have been summoned to testify before a grand jury. Perhaps the letter also says you are under investigation for possible federal crimes.
Such a piece of mail is enough to make anyone nervous, especially when you find out this is called a “target letter.” What does it mean to be a “target” of the Justice Department? Are you facing serious criminal charges and a possible prison sentence?
As with so much of the law, the answer is, “It depends.” In this case, it depends on the specific contents of the letter whether prosecutors are treating you as a witness, subject or target.
Which one are you?
If the target letter describes you as a witness, you are not currently under investigation and you will not be charged. Instead, you must testify about information you have related to the investigation unless that information is privileged in some way.
Being a “subject” of the investigation means the U.S. Attorney’s Office believes your past conduct “falls within the scope of the grand jury investigation.” You are not a prime target of the grand jury investigation, but charges are still possible. And depending on your testimony, the odds of the grand jury charging you with a crime could increase.
Finally, if the U.S. Attorney’s Office says it has “substantial evidence linking [you] to the commission of a crime,” or the letter specifically calls you a target of the grand jury investigation, then you are a “target.” Criminal charges are not inevitable, but the grand jury could indict you.
After a target letter, consult a criminal defense lawyer
Whatever the target letter says, your next move should be to bring it to a defense attorney who practices at the federal level. The attorney will help interpret the letter and let you know if you are under investigation or being called as a witness. Whatever your status, your lawyer can help you prepare your testimony, potentially preventing you from incriminating yourself.