With news stories breaking weekly, if not daily, about the investigations into connections between the Trump administration and Russians before and after the election, the news-monitoring public is being introduced to a handful of terms that are frequently used in criminal investigations and in the reporting of those investigations.
One that has cropped up a lot lately is “person of interest.” In truth, the term is used by media more often than law enforcement authorities. In fact, a review of the U.S. Attorney’s Manual, a guidebook used by federal criminal prosecutors, shows the phrase “person of interest” does not exist.
Yet a large percentage of the public attaches “suspect” to the term even though statistics show that is not the case. Donna Shaw, a journalism professor at The College of New Jersey, studied a year’s worth of stories that used the term “person of interest” and discovered that fewer than half of the people identified as such ultimately faced criminal charges.
"Some of the police told me, ‘We don’t know what it means but it makes reporters happy,’" Shaw is quoted as saying in a story published on CNN. Police are trained to use terms such as “suspect,” “witness,” “subject” and “target.”
Cooperation Does Not = Exoneration
No matter what term is applied to an individual in an investigation – if one is used at all – there is a tendency for people who are questioned by police, IRS investigators or other authorities to become overly cooperative. Many mistakenly believe if they are cooperative, then law enforcement authorities will leave them alone.
Making a false statement to authorities, even if you are not the focus of an investigation, can result in felony charges. For example, in IRS tax fraud investigations, many individuals who are initially identified as witnesses quickly become targets.
The U.S. Supreme Court affords any person who is questioned about tax matters by an IRS investigator the same protections against self-incrimination that individuals have in all other criminal cases. It is a smart idea to enlist the services of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney if you are being questioned in by the IRS or by police in any type of investigation.