TRENTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation today sponsored by Senator 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.
“One of the biggest problem we have when trying to combat criminal street gangs is getting witnesses to testify in court,” explained Senator Turner, D-Mercer. “These gangs have our neighborhoods paralyzed by the fear of retribution towards anyone who ‘snitches.’ We need to strike back and let witnesses know that the law will protect them and their families.”
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.
“People want to stand up and take back their neighborhoods from violence and crime, but they shouldn’t need to put themselves or their loved ones at risk in order to find justice,” added Senator Turner.
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.
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 now goes to the full Senate for consideration.