Acting as a witness in a case can sometimes be a dangerous activity, especially when there are people who don’t want you to talk. Witness protection programs exist to ensure witness safety and protect witnesses from those who would harm them for testifying. These programs exist at both the federal and the state level, though the federal program is the most well known.
The federal Witness Security Program, known by the acronym WITSEC, provides witnesses and their families with protective services to ensure their health, safety, and security. (18 U.S.C. § 3521.) Administered by the U.S. Marshall Service, the program began in 1971 and has protected over 18,000 witnesses and their family members since then. The program covers witnesses involved in federal cases—that is, cases handled in federal courts or by federal investigative agencies.
WITSEC affords protection by providing witnesses and their immediate family members with new identities. It provides documentation, housing, and assistance with basic living expenses such as medical care. Essentially, witnesses in the program start new lives with new identities that allow them to avoid being detected by those interested in harming them.
Through WITSEC, witnesses also receive 24-hour protection when they actually give testimony at trial or when attending any other “high-threat” event or court proceeding. At these times, for example, armed guards provide physical security when the witness travels to the courthouse. The witness might also be sequestered in a secret location before and during the trial and then transitioned into their new life after the trial concludes.
The decision to allow a witness to receive protective services lies with the Office of the Attorney General. The U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Enforcement Operations (OEO) is responsible for authorizing or approving protective services for any witness, or the immediate family of any witness, who provides testimony in a case. If the witness’s testimony is essential to the case, and if the act of testifying places the witness’s life, or the life of his or her family, in jeopardy, the OEO can offer the witness protection through the WITSEC program.
Choosing to enter the program always rests with the witness, and not all witnesses are offered protective services. The decision to offer protection lies with Justice Department officials and is typically made after speaking with the prosecutors and investigators involved in the case. Sometimes, attorneys representing potential witnesses will negotiate with officials on behalf of their clients about entry into WITSEC program.
The Attorney General’s Office has identified specific types of cases in which a witness can be allowed into the WITSEC program. These include:
Sometimes witnesses provide testimony while they are incarcerated, or a witness becomes incarcerated after entering the WITSEC program. In such cases, the Federal Bureau of Prisons provides the witness with protective services. Incarcerated witnesses are often placed in Protective Custody Units (PCUs) within federal prisons. These PCUs house only witnesses in the WITSEC program and are separated from other prison facilities.
In addition to the federal WITSEC program, some states offer witness protection services. For example, California’s Witness Relocation and Assistance Program (CalWRAP) provides protection to witnesses in any case where they might be in danger. State programs, like California’s, often provide protective services when a witness does not otherwise qualify for the federal program.
For example, in a domestic violence case brought in a state court, the witness might be a former romantic partner of the accused. Because the case is in a state court (not a federal court), even if the accused threatens or endangers the witness, the witness typically won't qualify for the federal WITSEC program. In such cases, the witness could be provided protective services from the state witness protection program.
Revealing potentially damaging or incriminating evidence about another person, organization, or government body can change your life permanently. Even if you don’t believe the information you reveal might incriminate you in a crime or expose you to prosecution, you need to talk to a lawyer before you offer to provide evidence or testimony. The simple act of telling authorities what you saw or what you know could irrevocably change your life, and you need to be prepared for the consequences.
Even though witness protection services protect you from physical harm, they do not, and cannot, protect you from every possible consequence you might face once you become a witness. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials focus on securing criminal convictions, and they can try to coerce you into doing something you aren’t comfortable with if they believe it will help their case. If you are a witness or are considering talking to government officials, you need an attorney by your side. Unlike everyone else you encounter in the legal process, your lawyer’s sole job is to be there to protect your interests.