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Innocent Witnesses Are Being Jailed: Why is This Happening?

November 9, 2017, on Criminal Defense Articles |

Throughout the country, prosecutors are making use of aggressive tactics to try to fight crime.  In some cases, prosecutors are actually putting innocent witnesses in jail in order to compel them to testify against people who have allegedly broken the law. 

A New York City criminal defense attorney can provide assistance in circumstances where witnesses are being compelled to testify so both defendants and witnesses who find themselves involved in a case where a prosecutor is threatening jail time for witnesses should contact an experienced attorney.

Prosecutors are Jailing Innocent Witnesses to Compel Testimony

According to The New Yorker, there have been dozens of cases in recent years where prosecutors have jailed witnesses in order to force those witnesses to cooperate with investigations and testify against accused defendants. 

Some of these witnesses included alleged incest victims and alleged domestic violence victims.  The New Yorker indicates that this form of “prosecutorial misconduct” has largely gone unnoticed, even though there have been lawsuits that have questioned whether prosecutors actually have the authority to jail witnesses and victims. 

Prosecutors claim to have this authority under material witness statutes, which have a very long history in the United States.  In fact, in 1789, the duty of witnesses to come before the court to provide testimony was codified in the Judiciary Act. The statute was viewed as necessary because it was important to public safety for perpetrators of criminal offenses not to escape punishment as a result of witnesses not wanting to testify.

Congress reaffirmed the rights of prosecutors to jail material witnesses in a court case in 1984, however it did indicate that whenever possible the prosecutor should aim to secure the testimony without imprisonment.  And, in 2001, the Attorney General reaffirmed the importance of the material witness statute as a possible weapon that authorities would be able to use in the war on terror to detain people of interest even in cases where there was insufficient evidence to arrest those individuals.

However, while there is a long legal precedent behind the jailing of material witnesses, the consequences of this practice can be harsh for those who find themselves imprisoned because they happen to witness a crime or because they are victimized and prosecutors want to force their cooperation. 

The New Yorker, for example, profiled one witness who was terrified after she was taken into custody for not responding to subpoenas about a court case against her ex-boyfriend who had been involved in a violent altercation.

She was taken to jail, ordered to strip, given an orange jump suit, and had to go to court in handcuffs and chains where the judge set bond at $100,000. Her bond was 10 times the bond of the alleged perpetrator and was unaffordable, putting her at risk of losing her job and being separated from her children for an extended period of time.

Circumstances like these put witnesses in a difficult position.  A New York City criminal defense attorney can provide assistance under these circumstances, and can provide help to anyone who is navigating the criminal justice system and who wants help protecting his or her rights.

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