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29 Nov 23

How Serious is Witness Tampering Under Federal Law?

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Last Updated on: 15th December 2023, 12:49 pm

How Serious is Witness Tampering Under Federal Law?

Witness tampering—when someone tries to influence or prevent a witness from testifying—is taken very seriously under federal law. Like, we’re talking felony charges and years in prison here. I know, intense right? Let’s break it down…

What Exactly is Witness Tampering?

Basically, witness tampering is when someone tries to influence or prevent a witness from testifying in an official proceeding (like a trial or congressional hearing). This could be done through bribes, threats, intimidation, persuasion, or just about anything else that’s meant to affect that witness’s truthful testimony.

Some examples of witness tampering include:

  • Offering a witness money or other benefits to lie, withhold information, or not testify at all
  • Threatening to harm a witness or their family if they testify
  • Persuading a witness to “forget” key details or change their testimony
  • Hiding or destroying evidence that a witness could testify about

Pretty unethical stuff. The goal is usually either to completely prevent someone from testifying against you, or influence their testimony to be more favorable to you. Needless to say, the law takes a very dim view of this.

Why is Witness Tampering a Big Deal Legally?

There’s a few reasons why witness tampering is treated as such a serious crime:

  1. It undermines the integrity of the justice system. If people could just threaten or bribe witnesses into silence, it would be impossible to have fair trials.
  2. It denies victims justice. Preventing witnesses from testifying means key evidence or testimony may be suppressed, letting criminals get away or receive lighter sentences.
  3. It discourages witnesses from coming forward. If they fear retaliation, witnesses may decide the risk isn’t worth it.
  4. It’s often used to cover up other crimes. Tampering is usually done by those facing legal trouble themselves, to keep their misdeeds secret.

Basically, witness tampering messes with the ability to find the truth and dole out justice. That’s why lawmakers throw the book at those caught doing it.

What Are the Penalties for Witness Tampering Under Federal Law?

Now onto the nitty gritty of the legal punishments. The main federal law dealing with witness tampering is 18 U.S. Code § 1512. This law lays out some pretty harsh maximum sentences:

  • Up to 20 years in federal prison if physical force was used or threatened
  • Up to 10 years if other “corrupt” means were used (like bribery)
  • Up to 20 years if tampering relates to a criminal trial or congressional hearing
  • Up to 10 years if it relates to other federal proceedings
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And if a killing happens related to the tampering? The death penalty or life imprisonment are on the table. Like I said, they don’t mess around here!

Fines are also possible on top of imprisonment. And don’t forget restitution to victims if money or property was lost due to the tampering. That stuff can add up fast.

But what about defenses or special circumstances? Keep reading…

Are There Any Defenses or Exceptions?

While the law comes down hard in general, there are some special cases where defenses may apply or reduced punishment given:

No Knowledge of Official Proceedings

To be guilty of federal witness tampering, you have to know an official proceeding is happening or could happen. So threatening someone who turns out to be a secret witness wouldn’t count. You have to actually intend to influence a real, known proceeding.

Self-Defense

If threats or force were only used against a witness in lawful self-defense, that can also excuse witness tampering. Like if they attacked you first. But the defense only goes so far…you can’t hunt them down later for revenge or anything.

Reduced Sentences

Judges have some discretion to lower sentences below the maximums if they want. Defendants could get reduced jail time if:

  • They were a minor player in the tampering
  • They fully cooperated with investigators
  • There were extenuating personal circumstances

But again, we’re still talking years behind bars here in most cases. The law tries to deter tampering by making examples of those caught doing it.

Has Anyone Faced These Punishments?

You bet. Here’s just a few examples of witness tampering sentences handed down over the years:

And those are just a few examples! Lots of mobsters, gang members, corrupt officials and other unsavory types have done hard time for tampering over the years. Like I said, not something you wanna mess around with.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Long story short, interfering with witnesses and their truthful testimony is treated as a very serious crime under federal law. Stiff prison sentences are standard, and even small-time tampering can land you behind bars for a decade or more. The moral of the story? Don’t tamper with witnesses unless you wanna spend some hard time as a federal inmate!

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