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.