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Trying the most complex issues for over 30 years.

What’s a “person of interest” in a criminal investigation?

On Behalf of | Dec 20, 2023 | White Collar Criminal Defense

It’s never good to hear your name (or the name of anybody you love) bandied about on the news as a “person of interest” in a criminal investigation.

But, what exactly does that mean? How should you respond? Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

The term “person of interest” is intentionally vague

The term is widely used by law enforcement authorities at both the state and federal levels, but the term actually only dates back to the mid-90s. The Department of Justice doesn’t actually define the term, so the authorities are free to use it very broadly (and they do).

In reality, a person of interest can be:

  • A subject of investigation: This means that the authorities have an interest in the named person and they want more information. A subject is often the focus of inquiries or some form of surveillance as the authorities seek to redefine their role in a suspected crime.
  • A material witness: This is someone who is believed to have information about a crime that’s essential to the government’s case.
  • The target of an investigation: This is someone believed to have been involved in criminal activity. Investigators are often subjected to a variety of investigative techniques as law enforcement seeks to build their case.
  • A suspect: This is someone who the authorities believe may have committed a crime. They may even have enough probable cause for an arrest.

Sometimes the authorities intentionally call someone a “person of interest” because they aren’t sure what role they may have played in a crime or if they’ll be charged. Other times, they do it because they don’t have quite enough evidence to make an arrest and they’re trying to pressure the named person into meeting with them.

That’s why it’s critical to remember that you’re always in legal jeopardy when you’re caught up in any kind of criminal investigation. If you’ve been named a person of interest in a criminal probe, it’s always in your best interest to seek legal guidance immediately.