A target letter is a letter from the U.S. Attorneys Office informing you that you are a target of an ongoing investigation. If you are a target, then the government has reason to believe you have participated in a federal crime. Being a target is different than being a subject or a witness. A subject of an investigation is a person whose conduct is within the scope of a grand jury investigation. This is a level of accusation below target, but nonetheless must be taken seriously. If you have been identified as a witness, then the government believes you may have information relating to an investigation, and you may be subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury. In any of these three scenarios, you should proceed with caution and hire an attorney. Nothing you say to law enforcement is protected or confidential, and a misrepresentation can result in federal charges.
Receiving a target letter is a clear sign that the government has evidence linking you to a crime, and not one to take lightly. A target letter should inform you of the crime under investigation, advise you of your legal right to refuse to answer questions, and invite you to meet with the investigators or testify before the grand jury. This invitation may be enticing, particularly if you think your explanation or your side of the story will help you, but you should still decline until you've spoken with an attorney. Your attorney can reach out to the prosecutor for you and gather additional information, talk about the evidence against you, or help clarify the subject or scope of the investigation. Even if it turns out that the best course of action is to meet with the investigators, your attorney can either proffer your side of the story on your behalf or seek an agreement protecting the information you give from use in a criminal prosecution.
When I was a federal prosecutor, target letters were often used in non-violent investigations to signal to a potential defendant that we had enough evidence to indict but were willing to come to the table in exchange for truthful information and a quick resolution. Often when targets come in with an attorney, their attorney can help shed light on the weaknesses in the case or provide cooperation that will help turn the investigation toward a larger target. In any event, there is more room to negotiate before a case has been indicted, which is why it is important to respond to a target letter swiftly and with the assistance of an experienced defense lawyer. Once a case has been indicted, the clock starts ticking on the government's prosecution and it is rare for the prosecutor to walk back charges (but pretty common to add charges). And even if you negotiate a plea, there is a risk of a judge rejecting your plea agreement.
If you have been served with a target letter, the Bowles Rice White Collar Defense and Investigations team can help walk you through the process and protect your interests.