The world is composed of four classes of people, at least that is so in the bizarre cosmos of federal law enforcement. Understanding what to do when an anonymous lawman moves you from one category to another may be the difference between freedom and prison.
Like it or not, we are all subjects. Just how law enforcement decided on a term that used to denote the relationship of a person to the king is a different topic. This is an unremarkable category, and a life well lived means never really being plucked from obscurity by the feds.
Suppose something goes bump in the night in your neighborhood, and lawmen want to ask questions about what you know. You may or may not be a witness. No one really knows. So you become a person of interest. The meaning of this is apparent from the name itself: The feds want to talk to you to see what, if anything, you know about whatever it is that interests them.
This is an often critical juncture. The feds are at your door for reasons that they may or may not disclose. Never forget that an unseemly degree of trickery and deception are Supreme Court-tested and approved law-enforcement techniques. This could be an innocent inquiry, but it could also signify that you are suspected of participation in a crime. The lawmen don't know yet. They are looking for you to tell them.
Many people talk themselves into an indictment at this point, assuming that, although they knew Uncle Louie was up to no good, they really weren't involved at all. These folks don't know how broad the net of federal conspiracy law.
Do you need a lawyer when the feds come knocking? It's never a bad idea to have counsel present, but, I confess, I am a lawyer. The generation of legal fees is a good or bad thing depending on which side of the attorney-client relationship you occupy. A lawyer's role in such cases as these is to be a diplomat on your behalf, to discover why the federal government wants to talk to you and to sound the depths of federal interest. Are these innocent questions, or are they the prelude to war? If the latter, the diplomat's role is tested to the limit: Can war be avoided?
The next level of federal interest is a so-called target letter. This letter informs you that you are the target of an ongoing federal investigation, and it invites you to make contact with the federal government either in person, or through counsel. If you receive a target letter you definitely need to consult a lawyer. Do not attempt to negotiate your way through the maze of a federal investigation on your own.
If you are like me, however, your response to such a letter might be a combination of fear and anger. I once received a letter from the IRS. I didn't like the look of it, so I tossed it without opening it. Months later I had only myself to blame when I was assessed a penalty for something a little care might have avoided. "Screw the government," is a great sentiment, but once they come knocking on your door, you need to find a more creative and constructive response. That's where your lawyer is needed.
A target letter is not always the prelude to prosecution. In many cases, the Government is simply confused. It has some information, but not a complete picture. A good lawyer can work with the Government to determine what laws it thinks you might have violated. By establishing a line of communication with investigators your lawyer can provide the Government information it needs to decide to close the case against you. Trust me, you would far rather have a phone call from your lawyer telling you the Government is closing its file against you than a not guilty verdict. Trial is high drama and excitement only for lawyers.
If things go bad, you move from target to defendant. Once a defendant, you'll be happy you had a lawyer earlier. All the words you have spoken to lawmen can easily come back to haunt you. The words of your lawyer, however, are almost never admissible against you. Yet another reason to seek counsel when a target letter arrives. The stakes are simply to high to leave matters in your own hands. What surgeon, after all, does his own biopsy when he discovered a suspicious lump in his groin?