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

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.