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Destroying Evidence After Getting a Federal Target Letter: Obstruction of Justice Risks

Destroying Evidence After Getting a Federal Target Letter: Obstruction of Justice Risks

Getting a federal target letter can be really scary. Your first reaction might be to panic and try to get rid of any evidence related to the investigation. But destroying or hiding evidence can lead to serious obstruction of justice charges. So it’s important to stay calm and get legal help right away.

In this article, I want to walk through what a federal target letter is, what obstruction of justice means, and the risks of destroying evidence after getting a target letter. My goal is to explain all this in a simple, conversational way to help anyone dealing with a target letter understand their situation and next steps.

What is a Federal Target Letter?

A federal target letter is a letter you get from a federal prosecutor or grand jury saying you’re a target in a federal criminal investigation[1]. It means prosecutors think they have substantial evidence you may have committed a crime. Target letters often say:

  • You’re the focus of an investigation
  • The specific crimes you may be charged with
  • You have the right to remain silent and should get a lawyer
  • You could be asked to testify before a grand jury
  • Don’t destroy any evidence related to the investigation

Getting a target letter doesn’t mean you’ll definitely be charged. But it does mean prosecutors are seriously looking at your case. It’s a scary situation for sure.

What is Obstruction of Justice?

Obstruction of justice refers to interfering with an official legal investigation or court proceedings. It’s a federal crime under 18 U.S. Code § 1503[2]. Common ways obstruction charges happen include:

  • Destroying or hiding physical evidence
  • Deleting electronic records like emails or texts
  • Lying to investigators
  • Trying to influence witness testimony
  • Threatening people involved in the case

Obstruction can happen even if you’re not directly guilty of the main crime being investigated. Just interfering with the case is enough to get charged.

Penalties for Obstruction of Justice

Obstruction of justice is a felony charge at the federal level. Penalties if convicted can include[3]:

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  • Up to 5 years in federal prison
  • Fines up to $250,000 for individuals or $500,000 for organizations
  • Probation

These are serious punishments on their own. But obstruction can also hurt your case if you do get charged for the main investigation. Prosecutors will argue your destruction of evidence shows consciousness of guilt.

When Does Destroying Evidence Become Obstruction?

Many people panic when they get a target letter and start shredding documents or deleting files. But destroying evidence only becomes obstruction when all these conditions are met[4]:

  1. An official proceeding or investigation is underway
  2. You know about the proceeding or investigation
  3. You intentionally corruptly destroy evidence
  4. Your actions obstruct or influence the case

The key is being aware of an ongoing case. If you don’t know about the investigation, just getting rid of old records as part of a routine is likely fine. But once you get a target letter, you can’t destroy anything related to the case.

Can You Be Charged With Obstruction for Destroying Evidence After a Target Letter?

Yes, you definitely can face obstruction of justice charges if you destroy evidence after receiving a federal target letter. Prosecutors will argue:

  • The letter proves you knew about the investigation
  • Any destroyed evidence was likely relevant
  • You were trying to undermine the investigation

These elements make it pretty easy to prove obstruction. And you’ll have a hard time claiming you didn’t know about the case once you get a target letter.

Famous Examples of Obstruction Charges

Some high-profile obstruction cases help illustrate how seriously prosecutors take evidence destruction[5]:

  • Martha Stewart – Charged with obstruction for lying to investigators about a stock sale
  • Frank Quattrone – Banker convicted of obstruction for forwarding an email telling employees to “clean up” files
  • Arthur Andersen – The accounting firm was convicted of obstruction related to destroying Enron documents

In each of these cases, obstruction charges were added even though the defendants weren’t guilty of the main charges. The cover-up ended up being worse than the so-called crime.

What Should You Do if You Get a Target Letter?

Getting a federal target letter can be scary. But overreacting and destroying evidence will only make things worse. Here are some tips if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Stay calm – Don’t panic or act rashly. Take a deep breath and focus on responding appropriately.
  • Don’t destroy evidence – Shredding documents or deleting files can easily lead to obstruction charges.
  • Hire a lawyer – An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can advise you on the best response.
  • Use your right to remain silent – Don’t talk to investigators without your lawyer present.
  • Follow your lawyer’s advice – On whether to testify to the grand jury if asked.

While a target letter is scary, having an experienced legal advocate can help you navigate the situation and avoid making it worse. Listen to your lawyer and focus on building the strongest case possible.

The Bottom Line

Getting a federal target letter means prosecutors think you may have committed a crime. Your instinct might be to destroy any potentially damaging evidence. But doing so can lead to serious obstruction of justice charges if you know about an ongoing investigation.

So stay calm, hire an experienced lawyer, and follow their advice closely. With the right legal guidance, you can get through this difficult situation intact.


[1] Have You Received a Federal Target Letter? What You Need to Know About Target Letters at a Glance

[2] 18 U.S. Code § 1503 – Influencing or injuring officer or juror generally

[3] Obstruction of Justice | Criminal Charges

[4] 1736. Elements of the Crime of Obstruction of Justice

[5] William Barr Says Trump’s Tweets ‘Make It Impossible To Do My Job’

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