Review of a Federal Grand Jury, Subpoenas, and Target Letters
A federal grand jury investigation is essentially described as a secret preliminary investigation of possible federal crimes. Put simply, their work occurs before any criminal charges are filed.
They have the power to issues subpoenas to witnesses in an effort to obtain related documents, and to issue subpoenas for evidence without any probable cause.
They don't always have to target just one individual, rather people who were not initially a suspect in a federal grand jury investigation can become one during the process. Federal grand juries have enormous power in the criminal justice system.
They contain up to 23 people, but only required to have 16 of them present during the investigative process. Just 12 votes are required to return a federal indictment.
The federal grand jury typically serves an 18-month term and will conduct regular meetings.
A federal judge will supervise their activities, but will not normally interfere with their criminal investigations.
How you respond to a subpoena for your testimony or documents is absolutely a critical part of the federal criminal court process.
For more detailed information, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers are providing an overview below.
What Is a Federal Grand Jury?
A federal grand jury does not decide guilt or innocence, rather instead gather evidence to determine whether federal prosecutors can charge a federal crime.
In that sense, a grand jury is more like a fishing expedition. If they hear evidence indicating a certain suspect committed a federal crime, then the grand jury indicts that suspect.
The federal prosecutor can then use the grand jury indictment to file the criminal charge commencing the criminal proceeding against the defendant.
Put simply, they get federal criminal proceedings started rather than convicting defendants of federal crimes.
Federal prosecutors use grand juries to gather evidence on which to indict individuals on criminal charges.
What is a Target Letter?
During a federal criminal investigation, suspects could receive a letter letting them know they are the “target” of a federal investigation.
These type letters are frequently used in fraudulent white-collar crime investigations, but can be used in any type of federal criminal investigation, such as drug manufacturing.
Put simply, a “target letter” is a notification that:
- the government believes you have committed a federal crime, or
- you have somehow participated in a crime, or
- that you have some type of knowledge about criminal activity.
The target letter is a formal notice that you will be called to testify before a federal grand jury, or that you are close to being charged with a federal offense.
Once a target letter is received, then then you are likely to receive a subpoena to testify before a grand jury.
A target letter will generally describe the alleged crimes and federal statutes that are under criminal investigation by the United States Department of Justice and the grand jury.
The target letter will typically include a deadline date, name and contact info of the federal law enforcement agent or the federal prosecutor.
Clearly, you should first consult with a federal criminal lawyer before contacting them.
Once a target letter is received, you will have several decisions to make in a timely manner, which will require consultation and advice from legal counsel.
What If I Receive a Federal Grand Jury Subpoena?
If you have received a federal grand jury subpoena to provide testimony, how to respond is a crucial part of the criminal court process. Put simply, you will need to retain a defense lawyer who:
- has experience in federal procedures;
- knows how to prepare an appropriate response; and
- knows how to communicate with federal investigators and prosecutors.
A seasoned federal criminal lawyer will normally be able to determine quickly whether you are a just a witness or if you are the actual target of the investigation.
Further, after you have been informed of a federal criminal investigation, you should be very careful how you handle any potential evidence in your possession.
For example, if you destroy or alter any records, you could face criminal charges of obstruction of justice, even if you were not the target of the investigation.
A criminal attorney will also be able to enforce your legal rights during the investigative process, such as your Constitutional protections to decline to testify, provide evidence, or to invoke your right to remain silent.
Further, there could be valid reasons to object to a grand jury subpoena, such as showing it violates marital privilege.
Put simply, retaining a lawyer with experience in dealing with federal grand jury investigations and negotiating with federal prosecutors is critical to the outcome of the case.
What Are the Risks of Grand Jury Testimony?
While a federal grand jury is only the way federal prosecutors start rather than finish federal criminal proceedings, they nonetheless present extraordinary legal hazards for anyone involved.
A federal investigation's target is at an obvious risk of indictment because prosecutors primarily use the grand jury to gather indictment evidence against the target.
Grand juries may be fishing expeditions, but the prosecutor generally knows the suspect's identity and directs the grand jury toward that suspect.
Do Innocent Witnesses Face Risks with Grand Jury Testimony?
The risks of a federal grand jury are not simply for the investigation's primary target. Innocent witnesses whom the prosecutor subpoenas to testify also face prosecution risks.
Under 18 USC § 1623, a federal prosecutor can charge a grand jury witness with perjury, punishable by up to five years in prison for false statements:
- (a) Whoever under oath, or in any declaration, verification, or statement under penalty of perjury, in any proceeding before any court or grand jury of the United States knowingly makes any false material declaration, including any paper, document, record, recording, knowing they contain false information, shall be imprisoned for up to 5 years, fined, or both.
The risks that an innocent witness faces go well beyond inadvertently making false statements.
Under 18 USC § 1623(c), federal prosecutors can charge a grand jury witness with perjury, again punishable by up to five years in prison, not just for false statements but also for inconsistent statements, without even having to prove which of those statements is false:
- (c) An indictment for violating this section alleging that a defendant under oath knowingly made two or more inconsistent declarations, which are not necessarily false don't have to specify which declaration is false if (1) it was material to the question, and (2) was made within the statute of limitations for the offense charged.
A witness might assume that the witness can keep facts and statements straight in a single appearance before a grand jury.
Yet federal prosecutors may call witnesses back multiple times for additional testimony, compounding the risk of inconsistent statements.
Sometimes, a grand jury proceeding doesn't catch the target fish. It instead catches the otherwise innocent small fry in inconsistent statements.
How Does Federal Grand Jury Defense Help?
Constitutional rights protect you in federal grand jury proceedings. Those rights include a right to an attorney's counsel and a privilege against self-incrimination.
Federal grand juries are secretive, not public. You won't get to bring your lawyer into the grand jury room with you.
But your lawyer can help you determine in advance whether to answer all questions, some questions, or no questions, depending on your privilege against self-incrimination.
You have that privilege against self-incrimination whether you are innocent or guilty, an investigation target, or just a witness.
Don't enter a grand jury room unprepared. Know what questions to answer and what questions not to answer.
Retain experienced federal criminal defense attorneys to represent you in the grand jury proceeding.
The court must permit your retained counsel to remain right outside the grand jury room to advise you after you testify.
You have the right to review a transcript of your grand jury testimony with your criminal defense attorney before the federal prosecutor calls you back into the grand jury room for additional testimony.
Your attorney can help you keep any answers clear, truthful, consistent, and non-incriminating so that you face no federal charges.
If you receive a federal grand jury subpoena, it's critical that you consult with legal counsel right away.
Eisner Gorin LLP has two office locations in Los Angeles County. Contact our law firm to review the details of your case at (877) 781-1570.