Federal law enforcement agents have tremendous power to investigate a wide variety of cases.  Whether from the FBI, DEA, IRS, or SEC, these agents use many different tools to gather information.

A commonly-used tool by these agents is an unscheduled, surprise visit to a person’s home or work.  This is commonly known as an “ambush interview.”  The general rationale behind this type of interview is that a person will be sufficiently startled and unprepared such that they will immediately speak to the agent without any conditions or restraints.

If this happens to you, there are three things to keep in mind when you decide how to respond.

  1. The Interview is Voluntary – Set the Terms and Location.

This is a voluntary interview.  You are not required to talk to the agent.  The only way that you can be forced to speak to federal law enforcement agents is through a validly-issued grand jury or trial subpoena.  A federal subpoena will require your appearance at a specific time and place, and failure to comply may result in contempt penalties that include fines and/or jail time.

But an agent’s request for an interview isn’t a subpoena.  Unlike with a subpoena, whether you submit to an interview request is strictly your decision.  This means that you can set the terms and conditions of the interview.  For example, rather than speaking with an FBI agent in your living room right before dinner, you can tell the agent that you would rather meet during normal business hours in a neutral location.  The agent must abide by your request.

The decision to be interviewed is yours and yours alone.  You can deny the request or set the terms and conditions of where and when the interview will take place.  As will be discussed below, it is often wise to have your attorney present during the interview.

  1. The Interview Can Have Serious Consequences.

Even though the interview is voluntary (and may be relatively informal), it is a serious matter.  The fact that federal agents are interviewing you could mean any number of things.  It might mean that they are investigating a colleague, family member, friend, boss, or employee for illegal behavior.  It might even mean that you are being investigated as a target, subject, or suspect in an ongoing criminal investigation.  Thus, anything you say to the federal agents may have consequences for you or for people you know.

Additionally, you face criminal liability if you do not give truthful and complete answers during the interview.   The false statements statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1001, provides that “whoever . . . falsifies, conceals, or covers up” a material fact, “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation,” or “makes or uses any false writing or document” is subject to fines and/or a term of imprisonment not to exceed five years.”

It is critically important that you recognize these consequences.  Many people unwittingly expose themselves to criminal liability because of something they said during a voluntary interview.

  1. Consider obtaining legal counsel.

There are lots of good reasons you may want the advice of an attorney when a federal agent requests an interview.  First, an attorney can prepare you for questions and be present during the interview to ensure that you are not subjected to improper questioning.  Second, the attorney can advise you to terminate the interview if it appears from the questions that you are a target of the investigation and/or have answered questions in a way that exposes you to criminal liability.  Third, an attorney can take notes and verify what you said to an agent during the interview.  This is especially important considering that federal agents do not typically record interviews—thus, if an agent later claims that you lied during the interview, it will be your word versus the agent’s.  Having an attorney present during the interview can help.

In sum, if a federal agent unexpectedly arrives on your doorstep requesting an interview, consider asking for the agent’s business card, explaining that it is not a good time to speak, and consulting an attorney about how to proceed.

The law firm of Beggs & Lane has several attorneys experienced in handling federal investigations—including interview requests by federal law enforcement agents.  If you wish to speak to one of our attorneys, we encourage you to call us at (850) 469-3326.

Charles T. Wiggins is a partner in the firm’s litigation group.  He is a Board Certified Civil Trial Lawyer and has tried over 75 criminal and civil cases to verdict in state and federal courts.  He is a former criminal prosecutor with the Office of the State Attorney, First Judicial Circuit of Florida.

 Matthew P. Massey is an associate who practices in the areas of government investigations and white collar defense, commercial litigation, and corporate law.  Prior to joining the firm, he served as an Assistant United States Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.