What Is a Target Letter?

Learn what it means to receive a target letter from federal or state authorities.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Receiving a target letter from a prosecutor is not something to take lightly. It signals that a criminal investigation is underway. It's best to seek out the advice of a criminal defense attorney right away. Here's what else you need to know.

What Is a Target Letter?

A target letter typically notifies a person that they are a subject or target of a grand jury investigation. Grand juries investigate alleged violations of federal or state criminal laws. Their role is to determine if the evidence supports bringing criminal charges against someone.

In the federal system, all possible felony charges must go to a grand jury. The "subject" of the investigation becomes a "target" when the grand jury has substantial evidence linking the subject to the crime. State prosecutors or laws may use different designations.

The office in charge of the investigation will send the letter. For federal investigations, this will be an Assistant U.S. Attorney. State prosecution offices might be referred to as a district attorney, state's attorney, county attorney, attorney general, or another name.

Is a Target Letter an Indictment?

No, a target letter is not an indictment. The target letter informs the person of a criminal investigation. An indictment means the grand jury has concluded its investigation and decided enough evidence exists to support criminal charges against the person. The indictment represents the formal criminal charges.

What Is in a Target Letter?

Target letters typically advise a person of a grand jury's investigation into specific criminal allegations. Prosecutors may also send target letters earlier in an investigation.

The target letter may provide the following information:

  • the crimes under investigation and the person's suspected involvement
  • whether the person is being asked to testify or produce documents
  • information on grand jury proceedings and evidence, and
  • notice of the person's constitutional rights, such as their right to refuse to testify based on Fifth Amendment grounds.

Here's a sample target letter from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). An example of a target letter from a state prosecutor can be found here.

Why Do Prosecutors Send Target Letters?

In most instances, prosecutors aren't required to send target letters. A prosecutor may choose not to because they don't want to tip off the target of the investigation.

However, a prosecutor may decide to send a target letter for strategic reasons, such as:

  • to notify the target of a criminal investigation and offer a meeting
  • to encourage the target to seek a lawyer
  • to see if the target will cooperate with authorities before being officially indicted
  • to subpoena (direct) the target's appearance before the grand jury as a witness
  • to offer the target a chance to testify before the grand jury, or
  • to caution the target that records relevant to the investigation must be preserved.

The DOJ has internal rules that provide guidance to federal prosecutors regarding target letters. State prosecution offices may have similar rules. A few states' laws require prosecutors to send target letters unless notification could result in the target fleeing the jurisdiction or endangering others.

(Ind. Code § 35-34-2-9; Nev. Rev. Stat. § 172.241; N.M. Stat. § 31-6-11 (2023).)

What Does It Mean to Get a Target Letter?

That often depends on the timing of the letter.

In some cases, the prosecutor sends a target letter at the beginning of the investigation to seek out cooperation and information from the target and possible resolution. Or the prosecutor might have a law enforcement officer (such as an FBI agent) deliver the letter and ask some questions. These early-on interactions might signal that the investigation is ongoing and the prosecutor may be willing to discuss options short of an indictment (cooperating witness, plea deal).

Other times, the target letter informs the person that the grand jury's investigation is nearly complete. This letter might invite or subpoena the target to testify before the grand jury and advise the target not to destroy any documents or evidence related to the charges. Here, an indictment is likely forthcoming.

No matter the circumstances, it's best to consult with a criminal defense attorney before responding to a target letter and to do so as soon as possible.

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