Tougher penalties give witnesses more confidence that the criminal justice system will protect them when they come forward to testify
Dover – The Delaware House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation on Thursday that increases penalties for criminals who attempt to intimidate witnesses.
Senate Bill 177, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Rose Henry and Rep. Helene Keeley, passed the Senate last month and now goes to Gov. Jack Markell’s desk.
Attorney General Beau Biden and a bipartisan group of legislators proposed the legislation because finding witnesses who are willing to cooperate with law enforcement and testify against defendants is one of the biggest hurdles authorities face in prosecuting and convicting criminals in the City of Wilmington and throughout Delaware.
“Prosecutors need witnesses need to come forward to testify so we can convict criminals, take them off the streets and strengthen communities,” Biden said. “For witnesses to be willing to come forward when they see a crime being committed in their neighborhood, they need to feel the criminal justice system will protect them. This legislation will strengthen the protections that witnesses receive and encourage more witnesses to cooperate.”
Senate Majority Whip Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington East, is leading the charge for the measure because she said the problem of witness intimidation is a serious one.
“I’m pleased that the House understood the importance of this bill and passed it. I think most of us have heard that witnesses who have key testimony have been scared out of stepping up because of threats to them or their families,” said Henry. “We need to make sure people feel they’ll be protected, if they do the right thing and I hope that, as word of these penalties, gets around it will make potential witnesses feel safer and make criminals reconsider trying intimidating witnesses and I look forward to Gov. Markell signing this vital legislation.”
The legislation elevates witness intimidation crimes to a higher felony level, so criminals who try to scare witnesses out of testifying are more likely to face a sentence that involves prison time.
Specifically, this bill seeks to deter criminals and their associates from harassing and intimidating victims and witnesses by increasing the punishment imposed upon those convicted of the existing crimes of “Act of Intimidation” and “Aggravated Act of Intimidation.” The bill reclassifies Act of Intimidation as a Class D felony, which has a penalty of up to 8 years in prison, and Aggravated Act of Intimidation as a Class B felony, which has a penalty of a minimum of 2 years and up to 25 years in prison.
“Witnesses coming forward to testify about a crime is stressful enough on its own,” said Rep. Keeley, D-Wilmington South. “Throw in intimidation and threats and it becomes a terrifying experience. We can’t begin to clean up our streets until we put these criminals behind bars, and we can’t put them behind bars if we don’t have witnesses testifying. We need to treat witness intimidation as the serious offense it is so we can get our judicial system working the way it’s intended.”
This proposal is the latest effort by Biden and legislators to ensure that police and prosecutors receive accurate and reliable information. In 2012, Biden and the General Assembly passed legislation focusing on false statements given to police officers to hinder or delay investigations. Individuals who purposefully provide false information to police investigating a crime are now guilty of a Class G felony under the legislation and face the penalty of up to two years in jail.