What Is a Person of Interest?

Scientist Steven Hatfill, who insists he had nothing to do with last year’s anthrax attacks, has become the country’s No. 1 “person of interest.” What does that phrase mean and where did it come from?

According to various law professors and former prosecutors, it doesn’t have any commonly accepted definition or legal weight. It can be used as a euphemism for “suspect,” but there can be a difference. When the government uses “person of interest,” says Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford, “it’s essentially acknowledging that it can’t do anything to you yet; that it has no power to arrest you.”  

The FBI says that it doesn’t use the phrase. (Indeed, the Department of Justice’s Code of Conduct guidebook discourages agents from “identifying uncharged third-parties.”) But the first time “person of interest” appeared in connection to Hatfill—in a June 25 dispatch from ABC News—it was attributed to G-men: “Today the FBI searched the apartment of a former government scientist. [T]hey don’t call him a suspect. They call him a person of interest.”

In fact, the bureau has used the term before the anthrax case. A May 7 Associated Press dispatch about a series of pipe bombings quoted FBI agent Jim Bogner as saying, “Luke Helder is a person of interest that we would like to question.” Helder was later charged with the bombings.

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Explainer thanks Professor Laurie Levenson of LoyolaLawSchool, Professor Robert Weisberg of StanfordLawSchool, defense attorney Gerry Chaleff, and Department of Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra.