TRENTON – Witness tampering or intimidation would carry a stiffer penalty under a measure sponsored by Senators Raymond J. Lesniak and Shirley K. Turner approved today by the Senate.
“In far too many cases, witness intimidation is preventing prosecutors from making a convincing argument and putting the criminal behind bars,” said Senator Lesniak, D-Union. “We won’t be able to reverse this trend until witnesses feel safe from harm and are confident that the criminals they testify against won’t seek retribution.”
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, “It takes a great amount of courage for these witnesses to come forward and testify. By taking on those who would look to intimidate witnesses, we can make it easier for responsible citizens to come forward and help make our communities safer.”
“Witnesses shouldn’t need to put themselves or their loved ones at risk in order to find justice,” added Senator Turner. “This measure is a critical first step in taking back our neighborhoods from the constant threat of criminal street gangs.”
The current penalties for witness tampering make it a second degree crime if the actor employs force or threat of force. Otherwise witness tampering is a third degree offense.
The bill would increase tampering to a first degree offense in cases where the underlying 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 39-0 and now goes to the Assembly for their consideration.