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Lesniak/Turner Bill Would Crack Down On Witness Intimidation And Tampering

TRENTON – The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legislation today sponsored by Senator Raymond J. Lesniak and Shirley K. Turner that would increase the penalties associated with witness intimidation and tampering in order to help law enforcement encourage more witnesses to come forward and testify during criminal court trials.

“Witness intimidation is getting so bad that many times, prosecutors will not pursue a criminal case unless there are multiple witnesses to the crime,” said Senator Lesniak, D-Union. “Many witnesses fear for their lives, especially when gang members are the accused individuals. We need to reverse this trend so that prosecutors can put more violent criminals behind bars.”

The bill, S-367/503 would upgrade the penalties for witness tampering, retaliation, hindering, and bribery. The bill would apply to official proceedings that are pending, about to be instituted, and have already been instituted.

“Our prosecutors are having a tougher and tougher time getting witnesses to testify in court cases when the defendant is a member of a street gang,” explained Senator Turner, D-Mercer. “These gangs have effectively paralyzed our neighborhoods by threatening retribution towards anyone who ‘snitches.’ We need to stand with witnesses and let them know that the law will protect them and their families.”

Under the bill, a person would commit an offense if he knowingly engages in conduct which a reasonable person would believe would cause a witness or informant to: 1) testify or inform falsely; 2) withhold any testimony or evidence; 3) elude legal process summoning him to testify or supply evidence; 4) absent himself from any proceeding or investigation to which he was legally summoned; or 5) otherwise obstruct, delay, prevent or impede an official proceeding or investigation.

Senator Lesniak noted, “In order for our criminal justice system to work, we must be confident that witnesses will give true and accurate testimony on the stand. We need to do more to shield witnesses from manipulation by the accused.”

“People are calling out for the government to stand up and take back our neighborhoods from violence and crime. But witnesses shouldn’t need to put themselves or their loved ones at risk in order to find justice,” added Senator Turner.

Currently, the penalties for witness tampering, which currently provide that tampering is a second degree crime if the actor employs force or threat of force and otherwise make tampering a third degree offense.

The bill would increase tampering to a first degree offense in cases where the underling crime being investigated or tried involves a crime specifically listed in the No Early Release Act and the actor employs force or threat of force. Such crimes are: murder, aggravated manslaughter or manslaughter, vehicular homicide, aggravated assault, disarming a law enforcement officer, kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, robbery, carjacking, aggravated arson, burglary, extortion, booby traps in manufacturing facilities, strict liability for drug induced deaths, terrorism, or producing or possessing chemical weapons.

Additionally, the bill would increase the penalties for retaliation against a witness or informant by raising it from a fourth degree offense to a second degree offense if the actor employs force or threat of force or otherwise a third degree offense.

The bill would also add the crime of making a bribe. Currently the law only addresses the taking or soliciting of a bribe and treats it as a third degree offense. Making a bribe would become a second degree offense if it is to tamper with a witness or informant.

The bill would also amend the hindering statute as it applies to hindering an investigation or prosecution by tampering with witnesses, informants, and evidence, to make it a crime of the second degree when done by means of force, intimidation, or deception.

Finally, the bill would require that convictions for witness or informant tampering, retaliation, bribery, and hindering shall not merge with the conviction of the underlying offense and the sentence shall be ordered to be served consecutively.

The bill was approved by a vote of 9-0 and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

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