Person of Interest

The term “person of interest” is used by law enforcement officials when discussing someone who has not yet been arrested or accused of crime, but who is still being investigated in a criminal investigation. The police are said to be “interested” in that person. While some terms, like “suspect” and “target” are clearly defined, the term “person of interest” is an informal term that remains undefined by the Department of Justice. To explore this concept, consider the following person of interest definition.

Definition of Person of Interest


  1. A person who is “of interest” to law enforcement officials during a criminal investigation.


1996                The term was first used at least as early as 1996 to describe

Richard A. Jewell, a suspect in the Atlanta Olympic bombings.

What is a Person of Interest

A person of interest is someone the police are “interested” in during the proceedings of a criminal investigation. The police may be interested in this person for several reasons. For example, a person of interest may be considered as such because he or she:

  • Is cooperating with the investigation
  • Is not directly involved in the investigation, but has information that may help the investigation along
  • Has specific characteristics or activities that warrant further investigation

Terms like “suspect,” “target,” and “material witness” are more clearly defined, and even have formal definitions given to them by the Department of Justice. However, “person of interest” remains undefined formally. It does not show up in formal manuals like the Associated Press Stylebook, which reporters use to aid them in writing their stories, and it has never been officially defined by police, prosecutors, or journalists. The term is more of a colloquialism, rather than an official definition.

The term “person of interest” is often used interchangeably with “suspect,” which may trigger a trial by media. “Trial by media” is the phrase used to describe the widespread media coverage of a case, and its impact on a person’s reputation, as well as the public’s opinion. A “trial by media” encourages the public to come up with their own verdict of guilty or innocent, either before or after a verdict is actually handed down. This has the power to jeopardize an accused person’s .

Difference between a Person of Interest and a Suspect

While the two terms may be used interchangeably, there is a difference between a person of interest and a suspect. A suspect is someone whom police believe may actually have committed a crime being investigated. A person of interest is someone police want to talk to for information about the case. Sometimes a person of interest ends up becoming a suspect, but that is not always the case. A person of interest is not always suspected of having committed a crime.

The difference between the two terms is so stark that, if reporters confuse them in a story, they may be setting themselves up for a lawsuit. This may also be damaging to a case if a person of interest becomes hesitant about talking to the police for fear of being labeled publicly as a suspect.

If someone is a suspect, the police are required to read him his Miranda rights before questioning him. However, if he is merely a person of interest, there is no requirement to do this, unless he is about to do something that will incriminate himself. However, because the term is not formally defined, different police departments may have different definitions insofar as what a person of interest specifically means to them.

Targeted Surveillance

Targeted surveillance is the term that is used to describe a kind of surveillance that is targeted on particular persons of interest. Targeted surveillance differs from mass surveillance in that the latter does not focus on an individual in particular, but gathers pictures and information to potentially use in the future. Databases and security cameras are examples of mass surveillance, as they keep information on many people, in case that information is needed in the future. Tapping a person’s phone, or monitoring his computer activities is an example of targeted surveillance, as it is aimed toward a single person or specific group.

Both mass and targeted surveillance can be carried out either obviously or covertly, and may or may not involve human agents. Targeted covert surveillance is considered “directed” if it is carried out as part of a specific investigation. “Intrusive” surveillance is surveillance that is done on a specific piece of property, like someone’s car.

Methods used in targeted surveillance of a person of interest or suspect can include the use of “bugs” to intercept communications, as well the devices that can sense movement, people, or objects. The targeted interception of things like traffic and location data is only justified when being used to fight more severe crimes, such as terrorism.

The National Security Agency (NSA) attempts to collect mass data on everyone at all times, without having a specific reason or target. The data that is collected is only used when something alerts the agency to investigate further. For instance, things like using encryption or searching the web for suspicious topics could raise red flags.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden commented on the practice of mass surveillance in November of 2016, saying:

“What I protest most strongly is mass surveillance, indiscriminate surveillance where they are watching everyone. Targeted surveillance that’s backed by a court … is the least intrusive means of achieving these investigative goals without destroying the rights of everyone else in a free society.”

He went on to comment on the terrorist attacks that occurred in France, Canada, and Australia that same year, pointing out that those responsible were under surveillance but that they were not picked out of the crowd:

“It wasn’t the fact that we weren’t watching people or not, it was the fact that we were watching people so much that we did not understand what we had. The problem is that when you collect it all, when you monitor everyone, you understand nothing.”

Person of Interest Example in the 2001 Anthrax Case

One of the most famous examples of a person of interest case involved Dr. Steven Hatfill, a physician and biological weapons expert, who wound up in the public eye after being falsely suspected of being involved with the 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S.

In the fall of 2001, when the nation was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, letters containing anthrax – a deadly pathogen – were mailed from Princeton, New Jersey to members of the press and to two U.S. Senators. Five people who came into contact with the letters ultimately died, and many others fell ill.

The FBI began a massive investigation, during which they questioned hundreds of scientists and experts in the of biological weaponry. This is what led them to Dr. Hatfill, who willingly cooperated with the investigation, despite having never worked with anthrax before. The FBI interviewed Dr. Hatfill numerous times, and he even volunteered to take a polygraph test to prove his lack of involvement – he passed.

During their investigation, the FBI talked to individuals who worked in the field of microbiology in order to obtain more information. This is how they found Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, an environmental science professor working at the State University of New York in Purchase, New York.

Rosenberg told the FBI that whoever sent the mailings had to have been someone who opposed her campaign for the Biological Weapons and Toxin Convention – a treaty that banned the production of a specific type of weapons. To her, Dr. Hatfill was the perfect suspect. However, after the FBI questioned Hatfill and searched his home – with his permission – they determined that he was no longer a person of interest.

In spite of the FBI having cleared Hatfill’s name, Rosenberg still tried to convince the FBI that he was a suspect and that he should be investigated further. The FBI declined, so Rosenberg, during a meeting with the targeted senators and an FBI agent, informed everyone of her suspicions. This encouraged the FBI to re-focus their investigation primarily on Hatfill.

Dr. Hatfill cooperated with the FBI, including agreeing to multiple searches of his apartment. However, during several of these searches, Dr. Hatfill was stunned to see that his complex was surrounded by news helicopters and television vans. Dr. Hatfill believed the FBI tipped off the media in order to show off that they were supposedly making headway in their investigation. Dr. Hatfill was also subjected to his phone being tapped, and he was even named as a “person of interest” on two national television shows.

Dr. Hatfill remained under the FBI’s constant targeted surveillance for over two years, and he was ultimately fired from his job at the Science Applications International Corporation. During a news conference in August of 2002, he denied any involvement with the mailings and blamed “irresponsible news media coverage” for his reputation being destroyed. This situation was a perfect example of a person of interest case leading to a trial by media.

Hatfill filed a lawsuit in 2003 against the FBI and Department of Justice agents who led the criminal investigation, claiming they leaked information about him to the press and, in doing so, violated the Privacy Act of 1974. His attorney argued that the term “person of interest” was not “recognized in law or criminal procedure.”

Dr. Hatfill argued that the actions of these individuals damaged his reputation to the point where he was rendered unable to find or keep a job. The government ultimately settled the lawsuit in 2008 for $4.6 million, and officially exonerated Hatfill of any involvement with the mailings.

Hatfill also filed suit against several periodicals and journalists, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Reader’s Digest, for defamation based on the fact that they had named him as an individual who was worthy of more in-depth investigation. The courts dismissed the lawsuit against The New York Times, finding that Hatfill was a public figure and was therefore fair game. However, Hatfill’s lawsuit against Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest settled for an undisclosed amount, and both magazines agreed to retract any implications they had printed to suggest that Hatfill was involved with the mailings.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Colloquialism – A word or phrase that is not formal and that is typically used in ordinary conversation.
  • Department of Justice – A branch of the federal government which prosecutes those who violate federal law.
  • Surveillance – Close observation of a person suspected of committing a crime, or of a spy.
  • Verdict – A decision or on a disputed issue in a civil or criminal case.