Witness intimidation, also known as witness tampering, means trying to change or outright prevent the testimony of witnesses during civil or criminal proceedings.
Interestingly, in the United States you may be charged with witness intimidation simply by attempting to change or prevent a witness’ testimony; unlike in other countries, in the United States you need not prove that the witness intimidation caused an obstruction of justice.
Consequences of Witness Intimidation
Attempting to alter or otherwise interfering with the testimony of a witness could be considered a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. Examples of witness tampering include coercing a witness to lie under oath, blackmailing a witness to tamper with evidence or urging a witness to not cooperate with authorities or forgo giving testimony altogether.
If you threaten the witness with bodily injury provided the witness doesn’t cooperate with your agenda, or threaten the witness’ family, that’s obviously witness intimidation and punishable by law. Even precluding a witness from appearing at a routine deposition or court hearing could be considered witness intimidation.
State Statute and Witness Tampering
Individual states, however, break down witness intimidation in slightly different ways – some states define witness intimidation as altering a witness’ testimony no matter the means whereas other states only criminalize outright intimidation, coercion or use of force.
Some states, in other words, criminalize and define witness intimidation as simply purposefully influencing a witness by any means. The stricter kind of state statute requires use or threat of force and/or outright intimidation of the witness to qualify as witness tampering.
Maryland’s Witness Intimidation Laws
Again, though, witness intimidation can be charged and prosecuted without proving an obstruction of justice in a criminal or civil proceeding. It’s enough that the intimidation took place. Starting in 2005, Governor Ehrlich of Maryland started moving towards toughening up Maryland’s witness intimidation laws.
One Baltimore homicide prosecutor estimated that an astounding ninety percent of homicide cases involve some kind of witness intimidation. In response, Governor Ehrlich moved to make it a criminal offense to coerce someone not to report a crime, make it a criminal offense to solicit someone else to threaten or bring about bodily injury on a witness, and add a five thousand dollar fine to the existing maximum penalty of five years in prison for witness intimidation.
A recent example of blatant witness intimidation involved a woman from Annapolis who planned to kidnap and murder the prosecution’s primary witness against her boyfriend. The women, Stacie Roberts, was arrested on May 5th, 2014.
Maryland’s Hearsay Exception
The National Conference of State Legislatures found that approximately 19 states had toughened their witness intimidation statutes as of 2006. In 2005 for instance, Maryland added the hearsay exception into its state statute’s handling of witness intimidation. This subsequently became a controversial piece of the witness intimidation law in Maryland.
The “hearsay exception” means that a statement made by a witness outside of the courtroom (e.g., in public) could potentially be treated as evidence in court. The aim behind adding the hearsay exception to existing witness protection statute was to help in cases in which the witness was too intimidated to show up in court in the first place; some witnesses fear for their own lives and family members’ lives.
The hearsay exception passed in Maryland but only under the condition that the witness made the statement outside of court in writing or on videotape. This means that if a witness suddenly goes missing, state police could potentially use documented prior statements made by the witness in the prosecutor’s case against the defendant.