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What is Witness Tampering?

By Christy Bieber
Updated May 16, 2024
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Witness tampering is the legal term associated with the crime of attempting to interfere with the testimony of a witness. Witness testimony is used by both plaintiffs and defendants as evidence in criminal and civil cases. Interfering with the testimony of a witness can therefore interfere with a criminal prosecution or a civil case and is punishable by law in order to protect the integrity of the justice system.

Witness testimony is important to proving a case in many situations. For example, an eye witness can report his or her perception of the events that occurred. This eyewitness testimony can, at times, be sufficient to convict a criminal or to prove a case conclusively.

A witness can also serve as a character witness, who testifies about the personal qualities of the plaintiff or the defendant. Alternatively, a witness can function as an expert witness. An expert witness has no personal knowledge about the event or the people involved, but is qualified to issue a hypothesis or opinion on what occurred based on his status as an expert within a given field.

Witnesses are very important because they can help to reconstruct events when there is disagreement about exactly what occurred in a given situation. Witnesses can help a court or jury determine if a crime was committed and by whom. As a result, witness tampering is a serious crime, punishable by up to 20 years in jail in some cases if the tampering involved use of physical force.

When a person engages in witness tampering, the person doing the illegal behavior attempts to alter or coerce the testimony of a witness using illegal means. In other words, it may involve contacting a witness and threatening the witness's family with physical harm if the witness testifies in a criminal case. Witness tampering can also involve bribing a witness. For example, a defendant in a criminal case or civil suit may offer to pay a witness to lie for him on the stand.

In the United States, witness tampering is established as a federal crime under statute 18 U.S.C. § 1512. The statute defines this crime as "tampering with a witness, victim, or an informant." A person who is charged with tampering with a witness may also be charged with other crimes, such as coercion, bribery, or extortion. These related crimes can all take the form of encouraging a witness to change his or her testimony through illicit means. Each of these related crimes carries potential penalties in addition to witness tampering.

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Discussion Comments

By anon344357 — On Aug 08, 2013

How do you prevent lawyers, especially ones working for a county or state defense, from tampering with witnesses' answers?

By anon307721 — On Dec 06, 2012

No one believes me, but the police admitted hiding my evidence (subsequently watering down my version of accounts) and thus tampering with my statement!

By MaPa — On Jul 27, 2011

More and more, I think we are going to see recordings, whether audio or video, being used to keep people honest during meetings, interrogations, etc.

Electronic devices are getting so small and cheap, it's almost inevitable. And it is great protection for those who are not lying.

By BigManCar — On Jul 27, 2011

@jonrss - Both sides of the aisle do this. I have heard people, especially low-income people who may not know better or do not have the resources to hire a "good" lawyer, be threatened with jail, having their children taken away, or even a loved one being arrested or given a harsh sentence if they do not "cooperate".

By parkthekarma — On Jul 26, 2011

@whiteplane - There are all kinds of situations where a "civil settlement" may be paid to a witness, especially if they are the main witness or the one who filed the criminal charges, with the condition that they not follow through on the criminal prosecution.

Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson are two people who "paid off" their accusers this way. Were they guilty? I have no idea. But the charges went away.

There are a few professions where those who practice them are allowed to do things that would land the rest of us in jail under many circumstances. Lawyers are one of them sometimes.

By jonrss — On Jul 26, 2011

I have, on several occasions, witnessed what I consider to be a kind of soft witness tampering. In this scenario a lawyer will try to scare a witness into altering or rescinding their testimony by leading to believe that there will be personal or legal repercussions for what they say. They are not suggesting that a guys knees will get broken but rather that he might loose his job, or admit embarrassing sexual details or implicate others. In most cases these are just idle threats but I have seen witnesses buckle under the pressure. I consider this totally unethical, but the bar association is a little less clear about when this is acceptable and to what degree. For the the sake of our legal system I hope that they can come down with a harder stance on this.

By whiteplane — On Jul 25, 2011

People might think that witness tampering is something that only happens in mob movies or bad TV shows but this is a very real issue in our legal system. It is also different than you might expect.

Most people think that witnesses get intimidated in order to change their testimony. It is actually more common for them to be bribed. This raises less suspicion (there is not suddenly a dead or missing witness) and it is more likely that a potential crooked witness will respond to money rather than threats.

I have been an attorney in the criminal courts for over 20 years and I can think of at least a dozen times when witness tampering has been proven or suspected. It is not super common but it is an issue and everyone involved in the courts system has to stay on their toes to ensure that it doesn't go on.

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