Understanding the Various Characters in a Criminal Trial

A wrong move during a federal criminal investigation can easily land you in hot water. Once you are involved, it would be naïve to assume that you are on the safe side just because you believe you have not done anything improper. There are several labels applied to the various people involved in a criminal case. No matter what you are considered by the investigating authorities, it’s important to have legal counsel on your side. Below we explain the various characters involved and what they mean to an investigation.


In most cases, a witness is someone who saw or observed a crime take place. But in a federal case involving the IRS, FBI, or Secret Service, being a witness could also mean that you have information that might be relevant to the investigation. This information could help determine whether a business/individual is guilty or innocent. 

It is important to realize federal law enforcement does not guarantee that your words will be protected just because you’ve are presently considered a witness. Furthermore, if you lie to a federal agent, you could be charged with obstruction of justice, which can land you in a federal prison for up to 5 years. 


A target is the person upon whom a criminal investigation is focused. This is someone who has been strongly linked to the commission of a crime. Federal prosecutors do not have to inform you of your status as the target of the investigation, so you may have no idea that you are under investigation. 

In some cases, you might be notified a reasonable time before the prosecutor seeks an indictment, but she is not obligated by law to do so. If she believes that you are a flight risk or might tamper with evidence, she is free to obtain an indictment and have you arrested without informing you first.


The United States Department of Justice defines a subject as someone whose conduct falls within the scope of an investigation. This basically means that the government considers your behavior as suspicious, and there may be a chance that you are involved in illegal activity. A subject is less likely to be indicted than a target, but he or she can become a target in the blink of an eye. A target can also lose their status just as easily, but again, the prosecutor does not have to inform you of these changes.

Person of Interest

This term is widely used by law enforcement, but it is comparatively new, having been introduced in the mid-90s. A person of interest is someone who has not been formally accused of a crime, but is involved in the investigation. There is no legal definition of a “person of interest,” mostly in order to temper expectations and provide legal protection. 

This label covers a variety of situations, but it is generally applied to someone in whom the authorities are “interested.” If you are a person of interest, it could be because you possess certain characteristics that warrant further attention, you have information that might be relevant to the investigation, or you are cooperating with the police.


In a criminal investigation, a suspect is someone who is under suspicion of the commission of a crime. If your status is a “person of interest,” no one can say that you are a suspect when you technically are not, because there is insufficient information. However, things can easily change to shift your status from person of interest to suspect. The term suspect is often used when referring to a perpetrator, which is wrong and could be the basis of a civil lawsuit. A perpetrator is the person who has actually committed the crime. The suspect might be the perpetrator, but the perpetrator might also be a different suspect. 

Regardless of your status in the investigation, it is crucial to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to help guide your strategy and avoid making costly mistakes. If you are involved in a federal criminal investigation, Barry M. Wax can help you learn what your options are. Get in touch today at (305) 373-4400.

Law Offices of Barry M. Wax