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Are target letters mandatory?

Understanding Federal Target Letters

Target letters are notices sent by federal prosecutors to individuals/businesses who are under investigation for possible violation of the law. The target letter tells the recipient that they are a target of an investigation and could be charged criminally.

While target letters are commonly used by the government, they are not mandatory under the law.

Here is an overview of target letters and their legal implications:

What is a Target Letter?

A target letter is a letter sent by federal prosecutors to a person who is the focus of a criminal investigation. The target letter tells the person they are under investigation for allegedly committing a federal crime, and that they could be charged criminally.

Federal target letters are usually sent to witnesses who prosecutors believe have pertinent information, or evidence, about the commission of a crime. The federal target letter requests the witness to provide info to prosecutors, or comply with a subpoena to testify in front of a grand jury.

Key Facts About Target Letters:

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  • They are sent by federal prosecutors, often the DOJ or a U.S. Attorney’s Office
  • The target letter informs the recipient that they are a target of a federal criminal investigation
  • The target letter will request information, evidence, or testimony from the recipient
  • The target letter recipient may face criminal prosecution, especially if the target letter is ignored

Target vs Subject vs Witness – When Dealing with Federal Target Letters

There are some differences between being a target, subject or witness in a federal investigation, when they get a target letter:

  • Federal Letter Target – Prosecutors have substantial evidence that link this person to a crime and they are likely to be charged.
  • Federal Letter Subject – The person’s role in a crime is known but there may not be enough evidence yet to file charges against the person.
  • Federal Letter Witness – The person has evidence or information related to the commission of crime but is not considered a suspect.

Why Do Prosecutors Send Federal Target Letters?

There are several reasons why prosecutors send target letters:

  • They notify investigation targets they may face criminal charges
  • They prompt targets to cooperate with the investigation being conducted
  • It allows for the discovery of evidence or testimony for prosecutors
  • It gives targets a chance to negotiate a plea deal, usually with the help of an attorney
  • It discourages targets from fleeing, or obstructing the investigation

The federal target letter provides an opportunity for targets to respond to criminal accusations, before potential charges are filed. How you respond to the federal target letter may convince prosecutors to reconsider charging you.

Is There a Legal Requirement?

Target letters are standard practice for federal investigators, but there are no mandatory legal requirements that mandate their use. The federal target letter comes from an internal policy of the Department of Justice that directs prosecutors to notify investigation targets of their status when possible.

The letters are not actually required by federal law or the Constitution. And in some cases, targets may not receive a letter at all before being indicted if prosecutors believe it may jeopardize the investigation – or if the target will flee.

Supreme Court Rulings Regarding Target Letters

The Supreme Court has not directly ruled on whether target letters are constitutionally required. However, in 1985 the Court ruled in U.S. v. Washington that citizens do not have a constitutional right to be informed of pending criminal investigations against them.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution doesn’t require prosecutors to notify investigation targets before seeking an indictment. While target letters are commonly sent as a courtesy, courts have not found them to be mandatory. In some cases though, target letters can be sent to witnesses and in situations like this the prosecutors are looking for information relevant to the case.

What Should You Do if You Receive a Federal Target Letter?

If you receive a federal target letter, here are some things to consider:

  • Speak immediately with a criminal defense attorney who understands federal investigations
  • Do not speak to federal investigators without your criminal attorney present at all convos
  • Follow your criminal lawyers advice about responding to the letter
  • Be careful in any communications related to the investigation
  • Start collecting documents, records, and other evidence
  • Ask your criminal lawyer whether negotiating a plea deal is the right idea
  • Make sure you understand your legal rights in the course of the investigation

Needless to say, federal target letter should be taken very seriously. They should not be ignored.  Involving an experienced white collar defense attorney early on is critical to protecting your rights and interests during the investigation.

While target letters are routinely used to notify individuals of investigations, they are not actually required under the law or the Constitution. Supreme Courts have not found that prosecutors obligated to send federal target letters.

If you do receive a target letter, you should immediately contact a qualified criminal attorney to help respond appropriately, safeguard your legal rights, and explore your options moving forward.

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