Material Witness and Suspect. What's the Difference?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 13 2001 5:13 PM

Material Witness and Suspect. What's the Difference?

CNN reported last night that three people taken into custody in an FBI raid in Boston are material witnesses to the terrorist attacks but that investigators say they are not suspects. What's the difference between a material witness and a suspect, and can both be held in custody?

A material witness is someone who possesses facts about a case that could be helpful to law enforcement investigators, but who was not part of the criminal activity and did not knowingly assist in it. In this case, the men detained--they were later released--used the same credit card that was used to buy airline tickets for some of the hijackers. "Material witness" is law enforcement parlance; lawyers refer to such a person as a "subject." Suspects (or "targets" as lawyers call them) are people believed to have been involved in the criminal activity. An individual's status can change from material witness to suspect if information comes to light that shows the person's complicity in the crime. In that case, a person can be charged as an accomplice, which for legal purposes can make him as culpable as the actual perpetrator.

Law enforcement officials can detain people for a few hours without filing charges, but holding someone in custody for a long period requires formal charges. [Explainer Clarification: That's wrong. Click here for the actual rules for holding material witnesses.] It's common for people being questioned as material witnesses to cooperate with law enforcement. For those who are reluctant to talk, a threat of being charged as part of a conspiracy often melts that reluctance. During yesterday's raids around the country, there were individuals picked up in connection with the attacks who were found to have problems with their immigration status. People in the United States illegally can be detained for lengthy periods for immigration violations alone.

Explainer thanks Frank Carter, an attorney in private practice inWashington,D.C., and Jennifer Lyman ofGeorgeWashingtonUniversityLawSchool.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 22 2014 1:29 PM “That’s Called Jim Crow” Philip Gourevitch on America’s hypocritical interventions in Africa.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 22 2014 3:33 PM Killing With Kindness My in-laws want to throw me a get-well-from-cancer bash. There’s no way I can go.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 22 2014 12:15 PM The Changing Face of Climate Change Will the leaders of the People’s Climate March now lead the movement?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.