Choose Words Carefully: Determining One’s Status in Federal Investigations


Originally published in Nevada Business - November 2012.

Whenever a client has the misfortune of being visited by federal agents or served with a grand jury subpoena, he wants to know the answer to a basic question: What is going to happen to me?

Federal grand jury investigations are intimidating, long lasting, and stressful. The grand jury’s primary function is to determine if there is probable cause that someone committed a federal crime. Prosecutors with the Justice Department will characterize a person in three categories: 1) witness; 2) subject; or 3) target. Distinguishing between these categories is extremely important. The person’s status will determine options and decisions on how to proceed. Understanding status in a federal investigation is crucial to making the right decision.

A ’target’ is a person the prosecutor or grand jury has substantial evidence linking to a crime (translation: defendant). Designation as a target provides clear warning of a person’s criminal exposure. A ‘subject’ is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s investigation. A ‘witness’ is a person who agents need information from but who has no exposure in the investigation. (i.e. records custodian).

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