A “target letter” is how the federal government informs people that they are targets for criminal prosecution. Simply put, it means the federal prosecutor believes the recipient of the letter has committed a crime.
The letter could be received expectantly or after federal law enforcement agents attempted to interview you. They are most often used in white-collar cases, such as fraud-related offenses, and are normally the first indicator that you are under investigation.
The federal government is not required to send target letters, and most people indicted never received one. Further, receiving one does not automatically mean you will be indicted, but it means the chances are high.
The United States Department of Justice defines a “target as a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking them to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant.”
You need to understand that it means they have a reason to believe you were involved in committing some type of federal crime. Target letters typically ask you to take a certain action, such as meeting with an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) who is investigating a case.
Few things can be more intimidating or fear-inducing than receiving a government letter indicating that you're the target of a federal criminal investigation. It can be especially daunting if you were unaware that such an investigation was even happening.
If you have received such a letter, you may be uncertain about what it means or the next steps. Let's provide some context so you can make informed decisions about how to respond.
What is a Target Letter?
A federal target letter is a written notification from a United States Attorney's Office or the Department of Justice (DOJ) informing an individual that they are the subject of a federal investigation. For perspective, federal investigators place people in three general categories when conducting an investigation:
- Witness: Someone the government believes may be able to provide information about a suspected crime.
- Subject: Someone prosecutors believe may be involved in a crime, but they must investigate further.
- Target: Someone for whom prosecutors have accumulated substantial evidence that they may have been involved in a crime.
As the name suggests, a target letter indicates that the recipient is a target, meaning that the prosecutor has substantial evidence linking them to the commission of a federal crime. The target letter notifies the recipient about several things, such as the following:
- Recipient's status as a target in a federal grand jury investigation;
- The crime they are suspected of committing;
- The recipient's legal right to assert the Fifth Amendment; and
- Information on how to obtain court-appointed counsel;
- Caution the recipient against destroying any evidence which would be considered obstruction of justice;
- Sometimes, the letter will encourage the recipient to contact the prosecutor to discuss the matter.
It is important to note that a target letter is not an indictment or formal criminal charge but a preliminary step in the investigation process.
How Does a Target Letter Work?
When federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), conduct an investigation into potential criminal activity, they may gather evidence and present their findings to a federal prosecutor.
If the prosecutor believes sufficient evidence warrants further inquiry, they may issue a target letter to the individual under investigation.
What Does It Mean When You Receive a Target Letter?
Receiving a target letter signifies that you are under federal investigation, that the prosecutor believes there is substantial evidence implicating you in a crime, and that there is a significant probability that you will be indicted.
As noted, if you receive a target letter, it will usually include a brief description of the alleged criminal conduct and federal statutes you are suspected of violating.
Often, there is an invitation to contact the prosecutor's office to discuss the matter, often with the option of having legal representation present. There is also a warning that anything you say to the prosecutor could be used against them in court, along with a reminder of your Fifth Amendment rights.
In many cases, a target letter will also ask you to take some action, such as testify before a Grand Jury or meet with a U.S. Attorney to discuss the case.
Does This Mean You Will Definitely Be Indicted?
No, as noted, receiving a target letter does not guarantee an indictment, although it does indicate that it is a strong possibility. Federal prosecutors are obligated only to pursue cases when they have sufficient evidence to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
As the investigation proceeds, additional evidence may be uncovered or weakened, so prosecutors may ultimately decide not to pursue charges—or they may find the evidence points to someone else and decide you are no longer a target.
Why Do Prosecutors Send Target Letters?
It should be emphasized that there is no federal requirement to notify you that you are the target of an investigation. In fact, many people don't find out they are targets until they are indicted. Prosecutors may have multiple reasons for sending a target letter, but some common reasons are:
- As a common courtesy.
- To obtain more information. Sometimes the defendant's response to a target letter provides more context that may even remove them from being a target.
- To prompt you to negotiate a plea deal. The target letter often means prosecutors have already decided to indict you, and they are attempting to get you to plea bargain to avoid trial.
- To give you time to prepare a defense. In complex cases, prosecutors don't want the case dismissed on a technicality or on the grounds that you couldn't defend yourself fairly. The target letter gives you advance notice so you can prepare an adequate defense.
What Should You Do If You Receive a Target Letter?
The steps you take after receiving a target letter can significantly impact what comes next. For best results, follow these do's and don'ts.
- Consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney immediately.
- Preserve all relevant documents, electronic data, and evidence related to the alleged crime.
- Follow your attorney's advice and recommendations throughout the legal process, including how to respond to the letter.
- Prepare for a possible grand jury subpoena or further investigation.
- Ignore the target letter or delay taking action.
- Talk to federal law enforcement agents.
- Discuss the investigation or details of the case with anyone other than your attorney.
- Destroy or tamper with any evidence or documents related to the alleged crime, which could result in additional charges.
- Attempt to contact the prosecutor, investigators, or witnesses without your attorney's guidance.
Hiring an experienced federal criminal defense attorney early in the case will give you the best chance of reaching a favorable outcome. Sometimes, a defense lawyer might be able to persuade federal prosecutors to drop the investigation against you.
Suppose a federal criminal indictment is inevitable. In that case, your defense lawyer can gather early discovery, evaluate the evidence, and possibly negotiate a favorable pre-indictment plea agreement with the prosecutor.
Suppose the prosecutor has not spent significant time and resources investigating the matter at this stage. In that case, there might be a better opportunity to negotiate than in cases where the grand jury has already returned an indictment with particular charges.
Federal criminal cases are complex, and the federal government has almost unlimited resources to investigate and pursue a conviction. Federal prosecutors are typically highly experienced and motivated to prove their cases.
We can guide you through every step of the federal criminal justice system. After you receive a target letter, effective and timely communication with federal agents and prosecutors is crucial. You can contact us for a case review by phone or via the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.