Understanding federal crime designations of “subject,” “target,” and “witness”

Under Investigation: We’re So Over It

Understanding federal crime designations of “subject,” “target,” and “witness”

FBI Agent approaching the subject of Federal InvestigationUnder investigation.  Turn on the news each day and you are bound to hear these words.  High profile government officials being indicted and charged with federal crimes including obstruction of justice, money laundering, tax fraud, and more.  Social media is ablaze with new legal developments in high profile cases. We are so over it.

But the reality is that being an informed citizen it today’s world means understanding some basic legal terminology such as how and individual is designated in a case.  What is the difference between “subject,” “target,” and “witness” designations?

“Subject” designation

The Department of Justice handbook, which is utilized by all federal prosecutors, contains the meaning of various terms including the method of designating individuals during a federal investigation. The term “subject of an investigation” is a person whose conduct is within the scope of a grand jury’s investigation, i.e. somewhere between a target and a witness.

In other words, a subject has engaged in activity that may look suspicious or unethical, but the prosecutor isn’t sure that said person has participated in criminal activity. An example of a subject might be the accountant of a marijuana dealer.  Perhaps the dealer (in addition to selling drugs) is also laundering large amounts of cash through a fraudulent business by creating fictitious work orders, invoices and bills. At first, the marijuana dealer’s accountant might be designated a subject, but the status could change to a target.

To explain this example further,  if evidence is uncovered where the accountant knew the monies were drug profits, assisted the dealer in the creation of the false documents, and used the documents to prepare and file a fraudulent tax return, then the accountant’s status could change. Using a line from the Watergate investigation, it becomes an issue of ‘what did they know and when did they know it.’ That crucial information can affect the subject’s designation, changing it from merely a subject to that of a target.

“Target” designation

The term “target of an investigation” is defined in the DOJ handbook as a person who the prosecutor has substantial evidence linking to the commission of a crime. Designation as a target provides a clear warning that someone is under federal investigation.  In white collar cases, this is often accompanied by a subpoena for documents and a “target letter.”

“Witness” designation

A witness designation means someone may have information helpful to the investigation: specifically, a witness can assist federal prosecutors in obtaining indictments against targets and even subjects. A witness designation does not have to mean someone observed a crime being committed. For example, let’s say you are selling your used BMW. Mr. Marijuana Dealer approaches you and buys it with one lump sum cash payment of $16,000, all in one hundred dollar bills. Federal investigators may well want to subpoena you to the grand jury and have you testify to show that their target, i.e. Mr. Marijuana Dealer, had large amounts of cash tied to his drug business. Your association with the target was not criminal, but resulted in you having valuable information for federal prosecutors.

Finally, a key point to remember is designation as a witness can change to a target, especially if someone provides false information to federal agents and/or destroys or alters documents requested in a subpoena. As stated in a previous blog, lying to federal agents or prosecutors on a material issue is a felony offense. In addition, the destruction of documents or alteration thereof can result in an obstruction of justice charge.

All things considered, if you are ever contacted by federal agents or prosecutors regarding a federal investigation, the best advice is to immediately contact an experienced Federal criminal defense attorney.

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