Managing Your Court Case

Online Witness Intimidation Can Compound Legal Woes

If your best friend, spouse, or another close relative is in trouble with the law, it's probably only natural to feel a little angry at anyone you think may have contributed to his or her arrest. However, it's best to keep that anger in check, or you might also end up sitting in a jail cell. Prosecutors are highly sensitive to the issue of witness intimidation—and it doesn't take much to cross the line between venting your frustration and committing a crime, especially online. Before you get online to vent, you need to understand a little bit about witness intimidation and the law. 

What is witness intimidation?

Witness intimidation is the act of trying to influence someone into not cooperating with the police or prosecutors. The goal might be to keep them from talking to authorities in the first place or, if they already have spoken with police, to change their story, become unavailable (and hard to find), or claim that they no longer remember what happened. 

While plenty of witness intimidation can happen in the real world, prosecutors have grown increasingly sensitive to intimidation that takes place online through the use of Facebook, YouTube, email, and other platforms.

What sort of online actions are considered acts of intimidation?

Some online acts of witness intimidation are more obvious than others. For example, police in Philadelphia quickly shut down an Instagram account that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of identifying and harassing witnesses to crimes. More than 30 witnesses to various crimes were targeted and account holders encouraged over 7,000 followers to submit information about the so-called "rats" who were testifying against others. The intimidation tactics included somewhat ordinary threats of violence, but also included posting information from supposedly secret proceedings and video taken in closed courtrooms. The message seemed clear: no witness could hide from scrutiny and even the inside of a courtroom wasn't safe.

Other acts of witness intimidation are less direct but no less illegal. For example, a man from Tennessee was convicted of witness intimidation after he posted some internet memes depicting violence against "snitches" and a Facebook message that promised to "pay back the favor" to the witness he felt had betrayed his family member to the police. Despite the vague nature of the memes and message, he was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison.

The fluid nature of the internet makes it easy to communicate a message fairly widely and quickly—which also makes it hard to deny an intent to communicate a threat once it is posted online. A Pennsylvania man found out the hard way that linking a threatening YouTube video to his Facebook page was considered an intent to communicate his implied threats to the witnesses in his case.

Even what might arguably be considered a momentary burst of anger can lead to your arrest. For example, the girlfriend of a man accused of drug dealing posted a photo on her Facebook page of the person she believed responsible for her boyfriend's arrest, identifying the person as a police informant. She was subsequently arrested for intimidation.

While it can be difficult to stay silent when someone you care about is under arrest, especially if you feel betrayed by an informant, the wrong response can lead to additional problems. It has become commonplace to take grievances online, but doing so when there's a criminal case involved can lead to charges of witness intimidation. If you have any questions about what is safe to post online, talk with your attorney first.