The How Witness Protection works.

HOW WITNESS PROTECTION WORKS
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How does the Witness Protection Program work?



The United States Witness Protection Program is one that is seen a lot in movies and on television but in these instances, the audience is only seeing the basics and may think that it’s simply a matter of the witness testifying and then moving to another location under a new name and new identity. Although these are in fact the basics of Witness Protection, there is much more to this program than simply packing up and leaving. Witness Protection is very important to law enforcement authorities and those in the courts who need to obtain crucial testimony. In most court cases when witnesses are called, they give their testimony with little consequence to themselves. However, there are certain cases in which it is probable that the individual testifying will be severely injured or killed for giving particularly damaging testimony. Cases that have involved the Mafia are some of the best known cases where the Witness Protection Program was necessary. The Witness Protection Program was created in 1970 by Gerald Shur. Shur realized that witnesses were scared to come forward, due to the consequences that they would most likely suffer.

But it does involve much more than simply moving one person to another location. Their old identities need to be stricken from all records, new identities need to be set in place, and new lives need to be given to them. In this article, we’ll look at how that is accomplished and just how involved this process is.

Witness Protection Eligibility

Of course, the United States government doesn’t want to be moving people all over the world if they don’t have to and so, there are certain requirements that the individual, or the case, must meet in order for Witness Protection to become an option. The first criterion that must be met is that the individual’s testimony must be considered credible and be deemed absolutely essential to the case in order for Witness Protection to take place. The witness must also be considered reliable and all doubt that they will back out of providing their testimony must be removed. This simply means that it must be made clear that the witness is not going to back out of providing their testimony before a court. Other criteria that make one eligible for the Witness Protection Program are:

  • Any offense that appears in the Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1961 that involves organized crime and racketeering;
  • Any offense that appears in Title 21 of the United States Code, that involves drug trafficking;
  • Any felony offense that will place an individual in danger of bodily harm, or threats of bodily harm, after they have provided their testimony;
  • Any state offence that resembles any of the offenses listed above;
  • Some civil and administrative cases that will put a witness in danger after they have provided their testimony.

There are three different federal organizations that are involved in placing a witness into the Witness Protection program and they each focus on particular areas within the program. These organizations and their areas of responsibility are:

  • The United States Marshals Service - they ensure that the participants of the trial who don’t go to jail are kept safe, secure, and healthy;
  • The U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Enforcement Operations – this organization determines who is allowed to be placed into the program after they have given their testimony;
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons – this organization oversees the incarceration of those deemed guilty after the trial.

The Entry Process

Once a state or federal law enforcement organization has placed a request that a person be placed into Witness Protection, the entry process into the program begins. An application, known as the Witness Security Program application is filled out, asking what the testimony is that will be given, what harm the witness will be vulnerable to and if the witness will pose any risk to the new location that they will be moved to. This application is then given to the United States Department of Justice: Office of Enforcement Operations (OEO), who will then conduct an interview with the Marshals Service so that the witness may be told about what life will be like in their new location. The Marshals Service will ensure that the law enforcement agencies or the prosecutor will be present at the interview and will bring a copy of the application as well as a threat assessment, which will explain in detail what threat is posed to the witness. Once the interview has been completed, the Marshals Service will then make a recommendation to the OEO on whether or not the witness should be admitted into the program.

The U.S. Attorney General has the final say on whether or not a witness can be placed into the program. The Attorney General will take into account the Marshals Service recommendation, as well as the thoughts of the prosecutor on the matter, and they (or someone appointed by them) will prepare a written assessment as to what risk the witness will be to the new location they are moving to. This is a necessary step because in many cases, the witness is a criminal themselves. The Attorney General will also take into consideration three other important factors: criminal records, different options other than Witness Protection, and if testimony from other witnesses would be enough to prosecute the accused. Once it has been determined that the witness’ testimony is crucial to the case and that it also outweighs the risks posed to those in the new location, the Attorney General can then place someone in Witness Protection. Once that has been done, the OEO will inform the federal or state agencies of the decision and the witness, and their family members, will be asked to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, which clearly outlines the rules of Witness Protection. These rules may include things such as the witness never having any contact with the family again and the witness’ agreement to go to jail under an assumed name, should they have committed a crime that they still need to pay for. The Memorandum also includes some suggestions such as continuing to use the same first name or initial with a different last name, and to forego all past hobbies.

As involved as this process is, it really is only the entry process to the program.

Having One’s Identity Completely Erased

Once a person has been deemed in need of the Witness Protection program, the Marshals Service will then go about trying to make that person ‘fall off the face of the earth.’ This includes things such as creating a new identity for the witness and his family, as well as finding somewhere that they may be relocated. But creating the new identity is not done by the Marshals Service alone. It involves many different government agencies and top secrecy. Some may think that assuming a new identity will give them a clean slate when it comes to things such as loans and outstanding debts as the creditors will now no longer be able to find the witness. However, these and any other necessary obligations must be met before the person will be placed into Witness Protection. Once the witness has met with the Marshals Service, they and their family, and any other endangered persons related to the case, will be taken from their current location right away and will be moved to another location. This is not however, their new home, it is simply a temporary location where they will remain safe prior to their move.

The witness will indeed be able to begin a new life for themselves once in the new permanent location. However, the reason for them being there will not be a complete secret from everyone. The Marshals Service will tell the local law enforcement agency what the witness is doing in the new location and will reveal all details of any past criminal activity. However, the Marshals Service will also help the witness adjust to life in their new community as well as they can. They will:

  • Find one reasonable job opportunity for the witness;
  • Help the witness find a place to live;
  • Provide them with funds for living, approximately $60,000 a year;
  • Give the witness, and anyone else who has taken on an assumed identity, proper identification documentation;
  • Make arrangements for any necessary counselling.

For the first short little while that the witness is in witness protection, the Marshals Service will also provide 24-hour security, especially when the situation is high-risk such as during the trial and the pre-trial proceedings.

When the Witness Testifies

The witness will not yet be in their new location during the time that they are needed to testify in court. They will instead still be at the temporary and secure location that they were first placed after entering the program. When the witness needs to testify in trial, a great many precautions are taken to ensure that the witness will remain safe until it’s time for them to move to their new home. During the trial, if there is a witness that was in the program but is no longer, they will still be given protection to ensure that they also remain safe during the trial. At times, witnesses have been brought in by helicopter, mail truck, and even fishing boats! Security is at an all-time high during this time because the witness is in such close proximity to those that may want to harm them and because the risks are highest just before they give their testimony.

For the witness to appear in court, the request must come from the Marshals Service or OEO and the witness must be given 10 days advance notice. Those that wish to question the witness must do so at an undisclosed neutral location, which are determined by the Marshals Service. Witnesses that are serving time in jail when they need to be questioned will have their interviews conducted in whichever penitentiary they are serving their time.

This may seem like a great deal of trouble on the part of the government but they do it for very good reason. Since the program began in 1970, Witness Protection has gotten a conviction rate of 89% through the relocated witness’ testimony and over 10,000 criminals have been convicted.

After the Relocation

Once the witness has been moved to their new location, they must never return to the location that they left. They also must never contact any family members or friends that are not protected. The witness must also aggressively pursue employment opportunities and if they should fail to do so, all payments from the government will automatically be stopped. However, the witness can apply for government assistance should they wish to do so. According to the Marshals Service, no witness that has kept to the rules has ever been found, injured, or killed by the parties that they testified against. After the witness has settled into their new life, they must still contact the government officials once a year but this is much less than the contact that is required while they are adjusting to their new life. However, they must always contact the government should they choose to move. If anyone wishes to contact the witness after they have relocated, they can only do so once they have made a request to the Marshals Service or the OEO.

Witness Protection.

 The How Witness Protection works of Witness Protection.

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