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Decoding FBI Target Letters: Implications and Strategies for Defense Lawyers

What to Do If You Get an FBI Target Letter

Getting a target letter from the FBI can be scary and confusing. As a criminal defense lawyer, I want to walk through what these letters mean and what your best next steps are if you receive one.

What Are FBI Target Letters?

A target letter is a letter sent by federal prosecutors to someone they are investigating for potential criminal charges. It informs you that you are under investigation and could face charges for a federal crime.

The letter will typically say you are a “target” or “subject” of an investigation. This means the prosecutors believe they have evidence to charge you with a crime or are still deciding if the evidence is strong enough.

The letter usually invites or requires you to speak with investigators or testify before a grand jury. It may warn that not cooperating could lead to obstruction of justice charges. Oftentimes, it tries to convince you to cooperate by providing information about others involved.

What to Do if You Receive a Target Letter

If you get an FBI target letter, here are the most important steps to take:

  1. Don’t panic. Take a deep breath and focus on responding appropriately.
  2. Contact an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer right away. Do not meet with investigators without your attorney present.
  3. Do not destroy any relevant documents, electronic records, or other potential evidence. That could lead to obstruction charges.
  4. Don’t discuss the letter with anyone except your lawyer. Conversations are not guaranteed to be private.
  5. Work with your lawyer to begin gathering relevant documents and evidence that may help your case.
  6. Carefully consider your lawyer’s advice about whether to testify or cooperate with investigators. They will help assess the risks and benefits.

Having a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer is key to dealing with a target letter. They serve as your advocate and guide you through the process.

Does a Target Letter Guarantee Charges?

No, getting a target letter does not automatically mean you will be criminally charged. But it does signal that prosecutors have focused on you as part of an investigation. Some statistics show:

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  • Around 10% of target letter recipients are never formally charged
  • 60-65% are charged within 6 months of getting a letter
  • Over 90% are charged within 18 months

So while being charged is likely after getting a target letter, it is not guaranteed. In some cases, your defense lawyer may be able to convince prosecutors to ultimately not press charges.

Why Do Prosecutors Send Target Letters?

There are several strategic reasons prosecutors send target letters to people they are investigating:

  • Notify you that you could face charges and should seek legal counsel
  • Apply pressure to cooperate by highlighting potential charges
  • Get your story on the record early in the investigation
  • Deter you from destroying evidence
  • Give you a chance to tell your side of the story before charges

Overall, target letters are an investigative tactic used by prosecutors to build their case outside of the courtroom. The letters provide leverage to get information and evidence from investigation targets.

When Are Target Letters Typically Sent?

Target letters often go out in the early stages of an investigation, before any formal charges are filed. Some common times include:

  • After suspects are identified but before subpoenas go out
  • Before convening a grand jury investigation
  • After documents are subpoenaed but before grand jury testimony
  • After other grand jury witnesses testify
  • Right before an indictment comes down

The timing is strategic to maximize pressure when prosecutors believe they have evidence to charge someone but want to strengthen their case even more before filing charges.

How Should You Respond to a Target Letter?

It’s understandable to feel pressure to cooperate or provide information in response to a target letter. But in many cases, you are better off not providing statements or testimony without the guidance of your lawyer. Things to keep in mind include:

  • The stronger the evidence against you, the riskier it is to testify or be interviewed
  • If charges seem inevitable regardless, there may be little benefit to cooperating
  • Your lawyer may be able to negotiate limited immunity or non-prosecution in exchange for cooperation
  • Admissions or statements, even if you are truthful, can still be used against you

Every situation is unique. But in general, politely declining interviews and only providing written statements through your lawyer is safest.

Strategies Criminal Defense Lawyers Use

Experienced federal criminal defense lawyers have many tools they can use to protect your rights after you receive a target letter:

  • File a motion to quash a subpoena to testify before a grand jury
  • Submit a proffer letter to propose an interview with prosecutors
  • Send a white paper arguing against charges
  • Negotiate limited use immunity for testimony
  • Seek a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for cooperation

An skilled lawyer will deploy the strategies best suited to your unique situation and goals.

Next Steps After Getting a Target Letter

Typically, the next steps after receiving a target letter are:

  1. Hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. This is the most important first step.
  2. Your lawyer will conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations and review the evidence.
  3. Based on their assessment, your lawyer will advise you on whether to testify, cooperate, or decline interviews.
  4. If you receive a subpoena to testify before a grand jury, your lawyer can file a motion to quash it.
  5. Your lawyer will negotiate with prosecutors regarding limited immunity, providing information, or other cooperation.
  6. You and your lawyer will determine whether to provide written statements or oral testimony to investigators.
  7. Your lawyer will present defenses and arguments to prosecutors regarding why you should not be charged.
  8. Prosecutors will either dismiss the investigation, continue investigating, or proceed with criminal charges.
  9. If charges are filed, the next step is your arraignment and pre-trial proceedings.

Having an experienced criminal defense lawyer guide you through these steps is critical for protecting your rights and interests after receiving an FBI target letter. Your lawyer serves as your advocate, negotiator, and advisor during the investigation.

The most important takeaway is: Do not go through this process alone. Consult with a lawyer immediately about your best response options after receiving a target letter.

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