Federal agents have brought you a letter stating that you are under investigation for possibly violating federal criminal law.   The letter states that you are the “target” of the investigation.  What does this mean? Am I going to jail?  Should I talk with these agents and try to work things out?  What is a “target”?

When substantial evidence connects a person to a particular crime, the federal government may identify a person as a “target” of the investigation.  A target is someone that the federal government likely intends to charge with a federal crime.  In many instances the federal government agency investigating the matter, such as the IRS, FBI, DEA or other agency, may determine that it would be beneficial to notify the “target” that he/she is being investigated by the federal government.  This can be accomplished through delivery of a target letter.  This is how it usually plays out:

Tom is at home with his wife and kids preparing for dinner.  Tom is a physician at a local pain management clinic that is often referred to by local law enforcement and other members of the community as a “pill mill.”  Tom is an employee and takes direction from other more senior physicians and investors.  Recently, his supervisors have insisted that Tom prescribe large quantities of a Schedule II controlled substance as frequently as possible under what they call a patient treatment initiative.

Tom hears a knock at the front door.  Two well-dressed individuals identify themselves as investigators with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration diversion program.  The investigators hand Tom a letter which states that the local federal prosecutor has identified him as a “target” of a federal investigation into illegally prescribing Schedule II controlled substances in large quantities outside the scope of medical practice.  Tom nervously explains that his wife and children are waiting inside and that he may want to speak with his lawyer.  The investigators explain that they have driven over 400 miles to see him and that they “just want to clear this whole thing up.”  Should Tom speak with them?  What does this “target letter” mean?

Practically speaking, there is an extraordinarily high probability that a person who is identified as a “target” of a federal investigation will be charged with a federal crime.  Once identified as a “target,” law enforcement has reached a conclusion that there is a significant reason to believe that the person has committed a federal crime.   Many times the federal government will send a person a target letter in hopes that something can be negotiated early on in the case with the target’s attorney that may be more favorable for the target than waiting for formal charges to occur.  Target letters are also frequently used when the federal government wants a person to cooperate in an ongoing investigation against bigger targets.  So what should a person do if they receive a target letter?  Below are some things to consider:

(a)  Do NOT agree to be interviewed without an attorney.  Understand that law enforcement has already concluded that you are highly likely to be charged with a crime.  Agents and officers will focus in on any inconsistencies, no matter how small, and make you appear to be guilty.  The meeting may be recorded and they do not have to tell you in most instances.  Talking to law enforcement without an attorney is always just a terrible idea.

(b)  Do NOT delay getting to an attorney when they leave.  I have seen over time that many people fall into complacency when the law enforcement agents leave and nothing happens for a few days or weeks.  Understand that a target letter is an expressed warning from the federal government that there is a high likelihood you will be arrested.  Having a competent federal criminal defense lawyer involved early on can lead to more favorable results for you depending on the circumstances.  Waiting is guaranteed to hurt you.

(c)  Do NOT tell too many people about this visit.  In the age of social media especially, word travels very fast and not everyone you encounter is trustworthy.  There may be countless reasons why confidentiality is important in these cases.  I recommend only speaking with your lawyer and no one else about it if possible until a clear strategy can be developed.

If you or your company has received a target letter from the federal government, please call me without delay.