Brown Law: Witness Intimidation Bill Won’t Help

With the rash of violence currently plaguing Baltimore, Governor Hogan and Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby are advocating for a bill that will address what they see as one of the major issues facing the city: witness intimidation.

We think this bill is a bad idea.

During his State of the State address earlier this month, Governor Hogan promoted the “Witness Intimidation Protection Act,” and described it as a tool to fight back against those who intimidate and threaten witnesses. He promised harsher penalties in an attempt to intimidate the intimidators. In a recent press conference, in which he chastised the legislature for not doing enough to stem the bloodshed in Baltimore City, Governor Hogan referenced the lack of movement on his witness intimidation bill and officially designated it as “emergency legislation.” However, the bill isn’t the solution the city needs.

The bill focuses on easing restrictions on the State’s use of hearsay evidence offered by witnesses who were purportedly intimidated. Hearsay is an out-of-court statement made by someone who is not testifying. It can only be introduced at trial in certain circumstances. In Maryland, there is an exception allowing hearsay only when the court finds by “clear and convincing evidence” that the person who the statement is offered against engaged in witness intimidation in felony drug crimes and crimes of violence. Under Governor Hogan’s proposed bill, the standard would be lessened to “preponderance of the evidence” and would be applicable to any criminal case, not just felony drug crimes and crimes of violence. The bill also would add harsher penalties for those that participate in witness intimidation resulting in serious physical injury or death.

In reality, the bill isn’t as forceful – or necessary – as its advocates claim. There are already existing statutes that penalize witness intimidation and the penalties the new bill touts are already accessible to prosecutors in cases of serious physical injury or death. This bill is essentially recreating a law that already exists under a shiny new name. Adding these penalties and lessening the evidentiary standard won’t end witness intimidation. The bill fails to address the root issue, which is that people are fearful to come forward because they do not have faith in the systems that are meant to protect them. Taking away protections guaranteed to a defendant – such as protections against being convicted by unreliable hearsay – will not help, but instead will continue to plant seeds of mistrust against those who are meant to protect the community.

We also question whether witness intimidation is as widespread as Governor Hogan wants the community to think. In 2019, only 12 people were found guilty of felony witness intimidation across the state of Maryland. Governor Hogan should focus on actual solutions to the violence in Baltimore City instead of promoting legislation that simply covers up political inaction.

— Carolyn Schorr