What is a target letter? Criminal experts break down federal investigative procedure

Honolulu’s chief of police Louis Kealoha and four officers are currently the target of a federal investigation, but what does it mean to receive a letter from the FBI, and what are those officers potentially facing?

We met with a former judge and prosecutor as well as a current criminal defense attorney to better understand the legalese behind a federal investigation.

Hawaii Pacific University professor, and former judge and prosecutor, Randal Lee describes a target letter from the FBI as a courtesy letter.

“A target letter is simply a courtesy letter given by the federal government informing you that you’re a suspect in a criminal investigation. It’s putting him on notice that the federal government is looking at him for potential criminal charges,” Lee explained.

Criminal defense attorney Michael Green puts it more bluntly.

“Once you get a target letter, that’s just the first step towards getting a phone call saying you’ve just been charged, and that’s probably coming in the next 60 days,” Green said.

“So all of these officers in the department who have received a target letter, are they in for a wild ride?” KHON2 asked.

“Yes, they are. The federal government works up. They don’t work down,” Green responded. “When you have soldiers, (in this case) the police officers, who are saying they committed a crime, they work their way up to the supervisors. They want information.”

There’s a grand jury process behind a federal criminal investigation with two types of juries: the investigative grand jury, whose job is to listen and gather evidence, and a charging grand jury, which decides if there’s enough evidence to charge with a criminal offense.

The grand jury process is secret.

“Because of the secrecy proceedings, you don’t know where they’re looking at. That’s the nature of a criminal investigation. Sometimes it takes you to another direction, and you may get multiple players,” said Lee.

Lee says this could potentially snowball into something bigger.

“You can’t just because four people got target letters mean the investigation is limited to four people. It may be more than four,” Lee said. “No one knows because the grand jury is a secret proceeding.”

Green agrees. “This community is going to be shocked by the people indicted in this case. They’re not shocked Chief Kealoha is indicted, because they’re spoon-fed that. I think there’s going to be some indictments in this case that will shock people. That will make news all over the country.”

While the investigation unfolds, Kealoha placed himself on restriction of police authority, also known as ROPA.

We asked acting chief Cary Okimoto what is the difference between ROPA and paid leave. Okimoto says ROPA means your police powers have been taken away.

“In this particular situation, being that he’s the chief of police, the reason why I believe he’s being placed on leave is because if he was to be reassigned and walks around the station or is at a desk, he’s still, people still see him as the chief,” Okimoto said.

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