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Could being a witness in a federal investigation lead to jail?

You can't really look at the news these days without reading about a federal investigation into something. One thing you may quickly notice is that someone who is initially described as "just a witness" will suddenly end up facing charges along with the original subject of the investigation.

How does that happen? Frankly, federal investigations are legal danger zones if you aren't exceedingly savvy about the law. Even if you really believe that you've done nothing wrong, there is no guarantee that federal investigators will agree. You can go from being a witness in an investigation to the target of one very quickly.

Quite often, witnesses end up making mistakes that are construed as obstruction of justice, which is a distinct crime in its own right. It essentially means that you knew a federal investigation was in process, and your actions somehow interfered with the investigation or attempted to do so. In other words, you may not be guilty of doing anything wrong until after the investigation started.

You can be found guilty of obstruction over relatively simple things. For example, maybe the stress of being interviewed by federal agents caused you to mix up some details in your statements. While some agents might realize you made an innocent mistake, others may believe that you purposefully tried to obscure the truth.

How do you protect yourself from ending up on the wrong side of the witness box in court? Take this advice to heart:

Do not be afraid to assert your right against self-incrimination

There's a powerful emotional incentive for people to seem cooperative with federal investigators. People often fear that they'll anger investigators or worry about how they'll be perceived.

Push past these thoughts and assert your rights anyhow. You can politely explain to investigators that you want to cooperate but you want to speak with your attorney first. Then stop talking.

Do not go with agents unless required by law

Unless agents have a warrant, you cannot be forced to go with agents to an interview in their office. Nor are you obliged to let them into your home. The best way to prevent yourself from falling prey to pressure tactics is to avoid being alone with agents.

Never attempt to justify your decision to seek counsel regarding your role in a federal investigation. It's your right, plan and simple.

Source: FindLaw, "Obstruction of Justice," accessed June 07, 2018

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