Witness Intimidation

“If I see you in court, you’ll be sorry.”

“If you testify against me, I’ll kill you and your family.”

Imagine the following situation: it is late at night, and you are leaving the grocery store to a mostly deserted parking lot. As you are unpacking your groceries, you are the sole witness to a carjacking. You are able to take out your phone, take a picture of the perpetrator, and call 911. When the police arrive, you give them the information that you witnessed, and three months later you get a subpoena to appear and testify in court. The person that committed the carjacking is released from jail; they know who you are, and as you are walking out after court they approach you and say to you the above statements. What do you do?

Under North Carolina law, there is a possibility that a few things have occurred. Intimidating or interfering with a witness is a Class G felony punishable by a maximum sentence of 25-39 months in the Department of Adult Corrections. To be found guilty of this offense, a person must do something that tries to or actually does intimidate a person who is called to court in North Carolina or is a witness to a case. It is noteworthy what is not included in the statute: the threat does not have to successfully coerce the person into not appearing or testifying, as just the act itself forms the basis for violation of the statute.

The aforementioned actions could also form the factual basis for the common law offense of obstruction of justice. There are two variations of obstruction: the Class 1 misdemeanor variety, which is punishable by a maximum sentence of 120 days, and the Class H felony variety, which is punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 20-33 months. To be found guilty of the misdemeanor offense, the only requirements are that a person unlawfully and willfully obstruct justice, which clearly covers an extremely broad range of actions. Any act that delays, prevents, or gets in the way of “justice” arguably can form the basis for obstruction. To be found guilty of the felony offense, the same actions need only be alleged to have been done with “deceit and intent to defraud.” Some examples of obstruction include pulling the fire alarm in the courthouse so your case does not proceed, attempting to intimidate or bribe a witness, or even slashing the tires of a witness so they cannot make it to court.

What if, in the carjacking scenario from above, instead of a grocery store the actions take place in your neighborhood, and you are a uniformed member of the neighborhood watch? If the other person threatens or intimidates you due to your part in the neighborhood watch, they could also be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum sentence of 120 days in jail.

Intimidation of a witness can also arise in the domestic arena. For example, your ex-spouse has charged you with assault from an incident that took place in the recent past. Pursuant to a court-order, you have sole custody of the children, but the other party is allowed visitation at your discretion. You come up with what you think is a brilliant idea: you tell your ex-spouse that you will not allow them to see the kids if they proceed in the criminal case against you. In doing so, you have arguably made a threat regarding parental rights, which is a Class G felony in North Carolina and is punishable by a maximum sentence of 25-39 months in the Department of Adult Corrections. The elements of this criminal offense require that the person threatening the other party be charged criminally, and they either threaten to or actually do deny or assert parental rights. “If you don’t drop the charges, I will try and get custody” would also arguably satisfy the statute.

But if they had only said “If you testify in court . . .”, would that satisfy the statute? As is common with the law, it depends. Being a witness to a crime does not have to be a scary or harrowing experience, and communicating with a witness as someone charged with a crime does not necessarily have to open you up to culpability for other criminal charges. At Arnold & Smith, PLLC, we can help guide you through the criminal and civil processes, fighting for your rights both in court and out of it. Contact us today to schedule your consultation.