Justice Scale And Wooden Brown Gavel On Usa Flag

A federal criminal investigation is a virtual danger zone for anyone other than an experienced attorney or investigator. Even if you believe that you are innocent, it is important not to assume that the government sees the situation the same way. Further, if you did something wrong, it is unwise to think that you can finesse the situation or explain away the problem on your own.

All individuals coming into the orbit of the federal prosecutor and grand jury fall into one of three categories: witness, subject, or target.  It is crucial to understand your status in a federal investigation to make the right decisions.

  • Witness: Being a witness in a case involving the FBI, Secret Service, IRS or other Federal Agency does not necessarily mean that you observed or saw a crime happen. You may have information that law enforcement believes might be relevant in a criminal investigation to help prove either the guilt or the innocence of another individual or business. Although you may only be a witness, it’s critical to recognize that if you speak to Federal law enforcement your words are not protected without a proffer agreement and should you make a misrepresentation, you can be charged with the crimes of Lying to a Federal Agent and Obstruction of Justice, each of which is punishable by as much as five years in a Federal penitentiary
  • Subject of an Investigation: The term “subject of an investigation” has a particular meaning within the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). According to the DOJ Handbook, a “subject” is: “a person whose conduct is within the scope of a Grand Jury’s investigation.” A subject is somewhere between a target and a witness. A subject has engaged in conduct that may look suspicious or unethical, but the prosecutor isn’t certain that a provable crime has been committed and wants to do more investigating in order to be sure.
  • Target: The term “target of an investigation” is also specifically defined by the DOJ. A person is a target where the prosecutor or Grand Jury has substantial evidence linking him to the commission of a crime. Designation as a target provides a clear warning of a person’s criminal exposure.

Even though your status as a witness, subject, or target may be important in guiding your strategy during a particular phase of a federal white-collar crime investigation, the key thing to remember about these categories is that they are ultimately meaningless and offer you no protection. Why? Because even if you are currently a witness or subject, there is no guarantee that your status will remain unchanged. It is necessary, therefore, from the outset of a white-collar crime investigation, to base any strategy on a realistic assessment of your potential criminal exposure after consulting with an experienced federal crime defense lawyer.

Never Submit to an Interview Without Legal Representation

Even assuming your absolute innocence of the wrongdoing being investigated, the federal law enforcement agent has had the luxury of studying all of the relevant paperwork surrounding that investigation. You, on the other hand, may not have thought about the subject matter, much less the underlying details, and you will probably not be shown any of the pertinent documents before the interview begins.

You could easily make factual mistakes during your interview. What happens then? Maybe nothing, if you are dealing with an experienced agent who believes that you are trying to tell the truth. But if the agent is inexperienced and unsure of your culpability or if you are not confirming his version of events, your mistakes can easily be interpreted as intentional falsehoods under federal law. It is ill-advised, therefore, to speak with a federal agent or prosecutor, or respond to a grand jury subpoena, without first discussing your case with an experienced federal white-collar criminal defense lawyer.

Contact a White Collar Defense Attorney

If you have been advised that you are a target, subject or witness, or if you are concerned that there is or will be an investigation, it is important to speak to an experienced Philadelphia criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Contact The Zeiger Firm today at (215) 546-0340 for a free consultation and let us help you.


  1. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1001
  2. https://www.justice.gov/jm/justice-manual

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.