Q. What is a target letter?
A. A target letter is letter that a federal prosecutor sends to someone who is suspected of committing a federal crime. The letter typically informs the recipient (ie, the target) that he or she is under criminal investigation, and asks the target to get in touch with the prosecutor or a particular investigating agent. It also might advise the recipient that he or she will be called to testify before a federal grand jury. Read more about a federal target letter here.
Q. What is a federal indictment?
A. A federal indictment is a formal accusation that a person or business has committed a federal crime. The indictment is “returned” by a grand jury, which consists of 16 to 23 citizens who meet in secret to hear testimony and review evidence presented by the prosecution. Although someone suspected of a crime may be called to testify before the grand jury, a suspect does not have an opportunity to present exculpatory evidence. The grand jury will return an indictment if it determines that probable cause exists that a crime has been committed and the alleged suspect committed the crime. This standard is substantially lower than the “proof beyond reasonable doubt” standard that applies at trial.
Q. Can I get my indictment dismissed?
Yes, but dismissals are rare. A federal indictment can be challenged a number of different ways. For example, if the indictment does not allege an actual crime, it is defective and must be dismissed. A perfect example of this in recent years concerns the ongoing litigation about what is or is not a crime of violence. Title 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) criminalizes the possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, but the Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit have narrowed the range of crimes that satisfy the crime of violence definition. So, if an indictment alleges the commission of a crime of violence when, as a matter of law, the offense conduct does not satisfy the statutory definition, that part of the indictment is defective and must be dismissed.
An indictment also may be defective if it alleges criminal conduct that is outside of the statute of limitations, fails to provide adequate notice of the criminal charges, or fails to plead all of the elements of a crime.
Q. If I am charged with a federal crime, will I go to jail or can I get released before trial?
Pre-trial detention is common for violent crimes, serious drug trafficking crimes, and cases in which the defendant is a flight risk. In many other types of cases, however, a defendant can be released while his or her case is pending. We have written an extensive free guide on this issue, available for download here.