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What does it mean to be a target of FBI investigation?

March 21, 2024 Uncategorized

What Does It Mean To Be A Target Of FBI Investigation?

Being a target of an FBI investigation can be a scary and stressful situation. It means federal agents believe you may have committed a crime and they are gathering evidence against you. However, being named a target does not necessarily mean you will be criminally charged. There are steps you can take to protect yourself if you find yourself in this situation.

What Is A Target?

The Department of Justice (DOJ) handbook defines a target as “a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime and who, in the judgment of the prosecutor, is a putative defendant.”[1]

In other words, if you receive a target letter from the FBI, it means prosecutors believe they have significant evidence that you committed a specific crime. However, it does not necessarily mean you will be indicted or charged with that crime.

Being named a target is very different than being called a witness or subject in an investigation. A witness simply has information related to the case. A subject is someone whose conduct falls within the scope of the investigation, but there is not substantial evidence against them yet. [2]

Why Would I Receive A Target Letter?

There are a few reasons you may receive a target letter from the FBI:

  • You are being investigated for committing a federal crime – This could involve crimes like wire fraud, tax evasion, identity theft, computer hacking, or any crime that falls under FBI jurisdiction.
  • You are being investigated for a crime as part of a larger conspiracy case – If the FBI believes you played a role in a conspiracy, even a small one, you may be named a target to pressure you to cooperate against the main subjects.
  • Prosecutors want to notify you of your rights – When someone is called to testify before a grand jury and is a target, prosecutors are required to notify them of their rights, including the right against self-incrimination. [3]
  • Prosecutors want you to reach out for a plea deal – Often target letters will encourage you to contact the prosecutor to discuss the investigation. They may hope you will provide evidence or accept a plea bargain.

What Are The Consequences Of Being A Target?

Being named a target of an FBI investigation can have serious consequences:

  • You may be arrested and charged with crimes if prosecutors feel they have enough evidence against you.
  • You can be called to testify before a grand jury, where you have the right to invoke your 5th amendment rights.
  • The FBI may begin surveillance on you, monitoring your communications and tracking your activities.
  • Your assets may be frozen or seized if prosecutors believe they are connected to criminal activity.
  • Your reputation, career, and relationships may be damaged by the public investigation.
  • You will likely need to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer, which can be very expensive.

What Should I Do If I’m The Target Of An FBI Investigation?

Here are some important steps to take if you receive a target letter:

  • Remain silent – Do not speak to FBI agents without your lawyer present. Assert your right to have counsel. What you say can absolutely be used against you.
  • Hire a lawyer immediately – An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can negotiate with prosecutors on your behalf and protect your rights. [4]
  • Do not destroy evidence – Destroying evidence after receiving a target letter could lead to obstruction of justice charges.
  • Ask your lawyer to reach out to prosecutors – In some cases, it may be possible to convince them to drop the investigation or at least negotiate a favorable plea deal. [5]
  • Consider taking the 5th – If called before a grand jury, you can invoke your 5th amendment right against self-incrimination. Your lawyer can guide you on this decision.
  • Do not try to flee – Running away or evading investigators will only make the situation much worse.
  • Begin gathering exonerating evidence – Your lawyer may be able to obtain evidence through discovery that proves your innocence.
  • Seek character references – Upstanding community members who will vouch for your character could help sway prosecutors.

How Long Do FBI Investigations Last?

Unfortunately, there is no set timeline for how long an FBI investigation takes. Some may last months, while complex cases related to public corruption, terrorism, or far-reaching conspiracies may take several years.

The length of an investigation depends on how much evidence agents need to gather and how cooperative targets and witnesses are. However, investigations cannot last indefinitely. Prosecutors are limited by the Speedy Trial Act, which requires indictments within 30 days of an arrest. [6]

Can The Case Against Me Be Dropped?

Yes, it is possible for the FBI to drop their investigation against you, even if you have been named a target. Here are some reasons this may happen:

  • Lack of evidence – If prosecutors realize their evidence is too weak, they may decide to abandon the case.
  • Negotiation with your lawyer – Your attorney may be able to convince them you are not guilty or do not deserve charges.
  • Cooperation – If you provide substantial cooperation against others involved, charges against you may be dropped.
  • Statute of limitations expiring – If too much time has passed since the alleged crimes, charges may be impossible.
  • Change in direction of investigation – If new evidence shifts the focus away from you, prosecutors may lose interest.
  • Successful legal motions – Your lawyer may file motions to suppress evidence or dismiss charges that are granted.

However, there is no guarantee once you are a target that the case will go away. Having an experienced federal defense lawyer gives you the best chance of avoiding criminal prosecution.

Can I Be Charged If I’m Only A Target?

Yes, being named a target means you could potentially face criminal prosecution. Targets who are uncooperative, destroy evidence, or otherwise act in ways that make prosecutors believe they are guilty are very likely to be indicted.

However, targets still have rights and protections. Being named a target does not mean you will definitely be charged or convicted. An experienced lawyer can negotiate with prosecutors on your behalf and work to prevent charges from being filed.

In some cases, it is possible for a target to convince investigators they are innocent or do not deserve prosecution. Although challenging, avoiding charges is possible in the right circumstances.


Being named a target of an FBI investigation is a serious matter that should not be taken lightly. While it does not guarantee you will be criminally charged, it means prosecutors have evidence against you and likely want to prosecute you.

The most important step is remaining silent and hiring an experienced federal defense lawyer immediately. An attorney experienced in dealing with federal prosecutors can work to protect your rights, negotiate with the government on your behalf, and hopefully prevent criminal charges from being filed.

While being a target is scary, having the right legal representation and following their guidance is key to avoiding the worst outcomes. With the help of a lawyer, some targets manage to emerge from FBI investigations without facing criminal prosecution.


[1] https://www.justice.gov/jm/jm-9-11000-grand-jury#9-11.151

[2] https://www.burnhamgorokhov.com/criminal-defense-resources/federal-criminal-process/target-letters-from-federal-law-enforcement

[3] https://www.oberheiden.com/fbi-target-letter/

[4] https://federalcriminallawcenter.com/2018/02/received-letter-u-s-attorneys-office/

[5] https://www.federallawyers.com/criminal-defense/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-target-of-fbi-investigation/

[6] https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-629-speedy-trial-act-1974

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