03 Aug 23

Targets, Subjects, And Witnesses In Federal Investigations

| by

Last Updated on: 13th August 2023, 09:25 pm

Legal terminology can be very confusing. Many people know what a terms such as a jury mean. They know what a judge is supposed to do as well as the role of a prosecutor and a defense attorney. At the same time, certain legal terms can be unclear. Even for those who have some experience with the legal field, it is not always obvious what is meant by terms that often used during federal investigations. Understanding specific terminology can help clear up any misunderstandings. It can also help people figure out what they need and want to ask any lawyers who might be assisting in their case. For those who are involved in the process of a federal legal investigation, knowing the difference between terms such as target, subject and witness is essential. Each will play a role in how the case plays out and the ultimate outcome for you and everyone else.

Three Statuses

In general, there are three statuses in any federal investigation. While these can vary, it’s a good idea to know what the terms targets, subjects and witnesses mean. These are part of the overall process of the federal criminal justice process. This process can take time and be spread across many days, weeks and even much longer.

The first status is what is known as a target. A target is essentially the person who is the focus of the investigation. They are the person the authorities are seeking to charge with some violation of the laws. A target may be a single person. It can also be a corporate entity and the people who run that company. Targets typically know they are the people being targeted. They have been given the information to understand why they are being targeted in most cases before the case begins. A target may be charged with a single crime. They can also be charged with more than one crime. The target may choose to plead guilty or they might wish to take the case further and dispute the charges. If you are a target, you’ll want to consult with a lawyer. They can help you understand what’s happening at every stage of the investigative process. They can also clear up any details that might be confusing as the case unfolds.

Another status is what is known as a witness. The witness is someone who may have been caught up in the case by accident. They might have seen wrongdoing. For example, they might have witnessed a carjacking or been in a plan when it was hijacked. A witness can have very brief involvement. They might have had a glimpse of the target as they grabbed the gun and demanded the plane be flown to a foreign country. The witness may also have been more involved in the case. For example, the pilot of the plane might have seen the whole thing from start to finish. If you are the witness to a crime, you might still want to speak to a lawyer. They can help you understand what you are required to do by law during a federal investigation. The witness is not the focus of the investigation and usually does not have to worry about any legal consequences when speaking in a court of law. They are required to tell the truth if they make any statements in a written document or they state something to an investigator orally.

Then there’s what’s known as a third status. This is the subject. The subject can be the most confusing status. As a subject, the person may be under investigation in some way. For example, they may be thought to have played a minor role a drug smuggling ring. At the same time, they are not the largest focus of the investigation. Law enforcement officials may be thinking of charging them with a crime at some point in the future. They may have some evidence against you but it is not finite and there may be problems with their case. If you have this status, you’ll to move forward with great care. This is where consulting with an attorney is ideal. They can help you find out what kind of evidence they have against you as well as what obligations you have as the case continues.

Those who are unsure where they stand should have their lawyer speak with the prosecutor. Bear in mind that your status can also change as the investigation changes. The prosecutor may have more enough information to decide against charging you with a crime. They may decide someone else should be the target. A prosecutor may also ask you to testify as a witness in turn for a possible reduced sentence. A great lawyer can help you figure out what’s always going on.

Federal Criminal Investigations Overview

Federal Criminal Investigations: Understanding Targets, Witnesses, and Subjects


Prosecutors often view targets as potential suspects. In numerous instances, government attorneys possess discernible evidence pointing to a target’s involvement in the crime under investigation. The government will notify someone they have been named a target in one of the following ways:

Target Letter

Sometimes, prosecutors will remit said individuals official government documents called target letters.

Search Warrants

Federal authorities might obtain court-approved permission to search the person of interest’s home or business. This official documentation is known as a search warrant.


Witnesses are individuals thought to possess pertinent information about some type of federal crime. Typically, witnesses are not considered hostile but potentially useful to furthering the investigation.


Prosecutors view subjects as those who have likely perpetrated a criminal act or possess significant information about the offense under investigation. However, unlike targets, they are not immediate persons of interest.

The Importance Of Hiring An Attorney

Anyone placed into one of these categories is encouraged to promptly seek legal representation. Well-rounded defense attorneys will keep a prosecutor’s attention off the subject and might also be able to encourage their client to cooperate.

Contacting Spodek Law Firm

Involvement is a federal criminal investigation can be an overwhelming experience. Therefore, anyone charged with a federal crime or has been classified as a target, witness, or subject in such proceedings should consult with the Spodek Law Firm as soon as possible.