Witnesses, suspects, targets and persons of interest: All these terms are bandied about on the news every time there’s a major federal investigation. While they all sound somewhat alike to the layperson, they mean different things.
If you’re involved in a federal investigation, understanding these terms — and knowing which one is being applied to you — can help you be more deliberate in your decisions moving forward.
Witnesses are generally people that the government thinks may have information that can fill in the puzzle pieces of their investigation. They usually aren’t in danger of criminal charges — but that may change depending on what they say during interviews with federal agents, at depositions or during grand jury testimony.
This means that your conduct is “within the scope” of the grand jury’s investigation. In other words, something you’ve done looks suspicious (and potentially illegal) to investigators, but they aren’t sure yet whether they will bring charges. You need to tread far more carefully than a witness during interview and grand jury hearings.
If you’re a target, the government definitely intends to charge you with a crime. They may still be building their case, but they already believe that they have substantial evidence that indicates you’re guilty of some kind of offense. If you’re a target, you may receive a letter notifying you of such — and warning you about your right against self-incrimination.
Persons of interest
This is an intentionally vague category with no definite meaning in the Department of Justice’s Handbook. You could be someone who has information the government wants — but you could quickly find yourself going from witness to target depending on what you say if you do choose to speak to investigators. In short, this is a legally dangerous position to be in.
You’d probably prefer not to be anywhere on the radar of a federal investigation. If that’s not an option, however, you need to take immediate steps to protect your future. Find out more about what to expect in the days to come, how to handle yourself and what you can do when you need a defense.