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Preventing a Victim or Witness from Reporting a Crime in Florida

In Florida, and likely in all of the other states as well, it is illegal for a person to prevent another from reporting a crime or otherwise providing information about criminal activity to the police or in court.  This is part of a more inclusive statute dealing with witness tampering.  The Florida law makes it illegal for a person to use force, intimidation or threats to cause another person to avoid testifying or providing evidence in a case, damage or alter evidence, avoid a subpoena or testify falsely.  It is also illegal to hinder a person from reporting a crime.  This is a felony crime in Florida, and it becomes a more serious felony the more serious the underlying issue is.  For instance, a person can be charged with a life felony of tampering with a witness if the person is obstructing a witness relating to certain serious first degree felony crimes.

This situation can come up in almost any case, but it comes up more frequently in domestic violence cases.  Since the parties know each other in domestic battery cases, the dynamic is one where it is more likely that the suspect will takes steps to try and prevent the victim from calling the police, giving a statement to the state or coming to court to testify.  If force, threats or intimidation are used, this could be a separate crime.

A person can be guilty of tampering with a witness even if the witness or victim has not taken any steps to contact the police or report a crime.  In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was being abusive to his daughter.  The kid’s mother and sister observed the incident.  After some yelling, the defendant took the cell phones from the older sister and mother and broke one of them.  He kept the other.  He told them they could not call the police on him for his abuse.  No one had attempted to call the police and report the abuse before the defendant took the cell phones.  The defendant was charged with tampering with the two witnesses for preventing them from calling the police.

The criminal defense lawyer moved for an acquittal on the tampering charges because the state failed to prove that the witnesses were attempting to call the police at any time before their cell phones were taken.  If the state cannot prove a witness or victim is trying to call the police, there is insufficient evidence that a defendant violates the statute.  However, this court disagreed.  The court focused on the actions of the defendant rather than the witness or victim.  If the defendant takes steps that prove he/she is using force, threats or intimidation to prevent a person from reporting a crime, regardless of whether the witness or victim has indicated an intention to do so, the crime is committed.  Other courts, such as the appellate court for Jacksonville, Florida’s district, do seem to require proof that the victim or witness was making an attempt, or at least expressed an intention, to contact law enforcement.  Had this case occurred in Jacksonville, Florida, the criminal defense attorney’s motion for an acquittal may well have been successful on the tampering with witnesses charges.