For most people, most of the time, being targeted by a federal investigation is so unlikely that it sounds like the punchline of a joke. Things turn very serious very quickly when you receive a target letter and learn you are, in fact, being investigated. For most people who receive target letters, the correspondence is a sign that your worst fears may be about to come true.
If you get a target letter yourself, here are the key steps you need to take:
1) Understand Exactly What A Target Letter Is
In essence, a target letter is an official notice informing you that an investigation is targeting you. Target letters are sent by United States attorneys. Letters often come with a request to cooperate with the authorities (this is called a “proffer”) in exchange for some protection from the investigation. Cooperation can take many forms, including turning over evidence, agreeing to be interviewed by agents, or testifying to a grand jury.
The objective of a target letter is usually to intimidate you. The serious consequences that come along with a federal investigation are powerful motivators. Many recipients will be willing or even eager to cooperate, especially if they believe they are earning protection for themselves.
Remember the Miranda warning you’ve seen on television so many times: Anything you say can and will be used against you in court. This still holds very true when federal authorities use a target letter to compel your cooperation. It is essential to protect yourself with strong legal counsel.
2) Get An Attorney
If a target letter arrives in your mailbox, you know with certainty that federal agents are investigating you. Their investigations may have already reached an advanced stage; you may even be at risk of arrest. In many cases, you will not be the first to receive a target letter. Other people associated with you and the subject of the investigation will receive similar letters and similar instructions. The chance to earn leniency by cooperating with the authorities operates on a first-come, first-served basis. If you do decide to proffer, it will be less effective the later you do it.
For the overwhelming majority of people, being the subject of a federal investigation is unfamiliar territory. You don’t want to take steps that admit or imply guilt, but you also don’t want others to implicate you. Trust an experienced attorney to guide you through this perilous process. Ways a lawyer can help include:
* Protecting you from unintentionally waiving important rights. Any information you share with federal prosecutors becomes admissible evidence in court. You need to have strong legal protections in place before you provide any information at all.
* Ensuring that, if you elect to pursue one, you get a fair plea deal. If you decide to plead guilty to a federal charge, the range of potential deals prosecutors can offer you is very wide. Let your attorney advise you on whether or not a given plea bargain is worth taking.
* Keeping the government from cutting corners. With vigilant legal counsel, you can protect yourself from false accusations or cases where the evidence against you is weak. In these circumstances, you will likely want your lawyer to take your case to court.
* Preparing you for testimony, depositions, and trials. Legal expertise is vital to ensuring that you answer questions truthfully and honestly without accidentally harming your case.
3) Destroy No Evidence
One integral part of a target letter is identifying the agency conducting the investigation. You will generally have had some sort of contact with the specific agency involved, and from that contact, you can probably guess as to the subject of the investigation. Once you know that, you may be tempted to hide, alter, or destroy what you consider to be incriminating evidence.
Willful destruction of evidence in a federal investigation is in itself a federal crime. (The relevant law is 18 USC § 1519.)
It’s a good idea to review anything that you consider to be evidence with your attorney. Your lawyer can use the information you provide to anticipate the likely steps the U.S. attorney is going to take in your case.
Have you received a target letter from a federal agency? Do not panic if you have. Remember that “innocent until proven guilty” still applies to you. But you should also remember that the federal government can bring tremendous, nearly unlimited, resources to bear on your case. You need the strongest possible defense, and a lawyer with significant federal experience will be essential in mounting such a defense.