Interfering with the cooperation or testimony of a witness undermines the judicial system and is a serious crime. Often called witness tampering or intimidation, it is usually punished as a felony.
Kinds of Witness Tampering
Any attempt to harm or threaten a potential witness so that the person does not testify is illegal witness tampering. So is coercing, bribing, or otherwise encouraging a witness or participant in an investigation to change his or her testimony or to not testify.
Here are a few examples of witness tampering:
- threatening a witness with violence if he or she testifies
- bribing a witness not to testify
- threatening a member of the witness’s family
- convincing a witness to hide, alter, or destroy evidence
- keeping a witness from attending a court proceeding
- urging a victim of domestic abuse not to call the police
- threatening to destroy the witness’s property
For example, an Iowa woman whose children and grandson were on trial for dealing drugs confronted the spouse of a witness testifying for the prosecution. She was convicted of witness tampering and sentenced to two years in federal prison.
Witness tampering doesn’t always involve a threat of physical violence. For example, the former CEO and cofounder of National Century Financial Enterprises, Lance Poulsen, was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice, witness tampering, witness tampering by influencing testimony, and corruptly persuading a federal witness. He and an associate allegedly attempted to pay a former executive VP for compliance $500,000 to $1 million to plead unfamiliarity with the fraud charges against Poulsen and others. That executive, who had pleaded guilty conspiracy to commit securities fraud and agreed to cooperate, went to authorities instead. Poulsen was sentenced to 10 years in prison for witness tampering.
Depending on the circumstances, however, witness tampering may be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, a less serious kind of crime. Misdemeanors are generally punished by less than a year in jail and fines.
Help for Witness in Fear
Witnesses and victims of crime who fear violence can get help from the federal Witness Security Program, also called the witness protection program. U.S. marshals protect witnesses whose lives are in danger because they have testified, or plan to testify, against drug traffickers or organized crime figures.
Witnesses and members of their immediate families may be given new identities and moved to a safe place. Housing, medical care, and basic living expenses are provided. They may also get job training or help finding work. While witnesses are under the greatest threat—usually during pretrial or trial proceedings—they may receive 24-hour protection from the U.S. Marshals Service. According to the program, no witness who followed the marshals’ security guidelines has ever been harmed while being actively protected by the U.S. Marshals. Thousands of witnesses have gone through the program since its start in 1971.
The federal Office for Victims of Crime also helps witnesses. Through local programs, it can provide crisis intervention, emergency shelter and transportation, counseling, and advocacy.
Getting Legal Advice
Anyone charged with the crime of tampering with witnesses needs expert advice from an experienced local lawyer. An attorney who understands how this kind of criminal case is handled in the local courts may be able to get the charge reduced or if not, advise on strategy for a defense.