Witness Intimidation Does Not Require Fear

The Mass appeals court ruled in Comm. v. Rivera  76 Mass. App. Ct. 530 on April 7, 2010 that to be convicted under the G.L.  c. 268, § 13B, the Witness intimidation statute, that there is no requirement to prove that the witness was placed in fear.

The court in deciding the case stated “The defendant contends that the amendment of the witness intimidation statute, effective March 30, 2006 (which is well before the incident for which he was prosecuted) “further clarified” that the Commonwealth needs to prove that the potential witness was frightened and made reluctant to testify. Before the statute was amended in 2006, it read in relevant part: “Whoever, directly or indirectly, willfully endeavors by means of . . . intimidation . . . to influence, impede, obstruct, delay or otherwise interfere with any witness . . . in any stage of a trial, grand jury or other criminal proceeding or with any person furnishing information to a criminal investigator . . . shall be punished . . . .” G. L. c. 268, § 13B, as amended through St. 1996, c. 393, § 3 (prior statute). In contrast, the amended statute reads in relevant part: “Whoever, directly or indirectly, willfully . . . intimidates . . . another person who is . . . a witness or potential witness at any stage of a criminal investigation . . . with the intent to impede, obstruct, delay, harm, punish or otherwise interfere thereby with a criminal investigation, grand jury proceeding, trial or other criminal proceeding . . . shall be punished . . . .” G. L. c. 268, § 13B(1)(c)(i)(v), appearing in St. 2006, c. 48, § 3.

The defendant contends that by removing the word “endeavors” the Legislature required that the intimidating words or conduct be successful, meaning the defendant instill fear and a reluctance to testify in the potential witness.

If the amendment substantively changed the intimidation requirement in the statute, a number of issues are raised in this case. First, the indictment and jury instructions tracked the statutory language prior to the 2006 amendment. [Note 3][Note 4] Moreover, neither defense counsel nor the prosecution appeared to be aware that the statute had been amended and no objections were raised regarding the language of the indictment or the jury instructions. For the reasons discussed below, however, we conclude that the amended statute does not require that the words or acts of intimidation actually frighten the potential witness and make the witness reluctant to testify.

According to the case law construing the statute before its amendment in 2006, the statute was intended “to protect witnesses from being bullied or harried so that they do not become reluctant to testify or to give truthful evidence in investigatory or judicial proceedings . . . [and] to prevent interference with the administration of justice.” Commonwealth v. McCreary, 45 Mass. App. Ct. 797 , 799 (1998). Intimidation, according to the prior case law, was “putting a person in fear for the purpose of influencing his or her conduct.” Ibid.

Under the prior statute, intimidation was a “means” employed, not an end to be achieved. G. L. c. 268, § 13B, as amended through St. 1996, c. 393, § 3 (“Whoever . . . willfully endeavors by means of intimidation”). The word “endeavors” was construed as indicating that “the Legislature intended to punish any wilful conduct that amounted to an ‘effort or essay’ to ‘influence, impede, obstruct, delay or otherwise interfere with any witness

. . . in any stage of a trial or other criminal proceeding.’ ” Commonwealth v. Rondeau, 27 Mass. App. Ct. 55 , 60 (1989) (citation omitted). [Note 5]The court rejected the argument that the “victim was not intimidated because he testified immediately thereafter.” Commonwealth v. Robinson, 444 Mass. 102 , 109 (2005). Thus, the prior statute “[did] not require that the intimidation be successful.” Ibid.

In response to a “new wave” of gang violence and witness intimidation, the Legislature amended G. L. c. 268, § 13B, in 2006. See 2005 Senate Doc. No. 26, at 6. [Note 6] To address these problems, the Legislature expressly expanded the scope of the statute. The means of intimidation, the class of victims, and the kinds of criminal proceedings covered by the statute were all enlarged. Enhanced penalties were also provided for certain firearm offenses. See, e.g., St. 2006, c. 48, § 5. The over-all purpose and effect of the amendment was therefore to expand the scope of the statute to address heightened concerns with witness intimidation and its interference with the successful prosecution of gang members and other street violence.

The defendant nonetheless argues for an interpretation of the amended statute that would narrow its application and undermine its over-all purpose.[Note 7] The defendant contends that regardless of the words or acts of intended intimidation, if the witness was not frightened and fearful of testifying, the defendant could not be prosecuted for intimidation. We disagree.

The intimidation language at issue was reformulated as part of the larger amendment discussed above. Instead of providing, “Whoever . . . willfully endeavors by means of . . . intimidation . . . to influence . . . any witness . . .”, the statute now reads, “Whoever . . . willfully . . . intimidates . . . a witness . . . with the intent to impede . . . .” Although we have found no legislative history explaining the reasons for this particular reformulation, we do not consider the elimination of the word “endeavors,” or the remainder of the reformulation, to have the purpose or effect the defendant contends. See Simon v. Solomon, 385 Mass. 91 , 100 (1982) (“A statute should not be read in a manner that defeats its intended utility”). Rather, both before and after the amendment, the Commonwealth was required to prove that the defendant wilfully engaged in intimidating conduct, that is, acts or words that would instill fear in a reasonable person, and did so with the intent to impede or influence a potential witness’s testimony. See generally Commonwealth v. Casiano, 70 Mass. App. Ct. 705 , 709 (2007) (applying reasonable person or reasonable police officer standard, court concludes intimidation requirement was met). Neither before or after the amendment was it necessary to establish that the intimidation was successful in the sense that the target of the intimidating conduct was actually frightened and made reluctant to testify.

With this understanding in mind, we consider whether the error here, which was to give jury instructions based on the prior statute, rather than the amended statute, created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice. [Note 8] We begin by emphasizing that the issue of the victim’s subjective reaction to the conduct was on the jury’s minds. During deliberations, the jury submitted the following question to the judge: “Regarding the definition of intimidation, is it the intent of the Defendant to make [the victim] fearful or timid that matters, or is it [the victim’s] actual feeling of fear or timidity that matters?” An extensive discussion between counsel the judge followed the question. In response, the judge first told the jury he was “not sure what the question is asking” and just repeated the instruction on intimidation that he had given previously.

The jury then submitted a follow-up question, which read: “The definition of intimidation says ‘intimidation means to make timid or fearful.’ Does that mean that [the victim] must have felt fear or timid or does it mean that [the defendant] tried to make [the victim] fearful or timid?” After discussing the issue with counsel, the judge, without objection, instructed the jury as follows: “Now, with respect to the first question: ‘Does that mean that [the victim] must have felt fearful or timid?’ The answer is, no, there is no requirement or no element that the Commonwealth has to prove that [the victim] must have felt fearful or timid. You may use any evidence that you have received and accepted with respect to [the victim’s] reaction in order to determine any of the elements in this case . . . , particularly, intimidation, but the Commonwealth does not have an element to prove that [the victim] felt fearful or timid.”

The judge further instructed in respect to the second question: ” ‘Does it mean that [the defendant] tried to make [the victim] fearful or timid?’ The answer to that is yes, that is an element that the Commonwealth has to prove, that [the defendant] tried to make him, meaning [the victim], fearful or timid.”

We conclude that the combination of the original instructions, and the specific instructions given in response to the jury’s questions, adequately informed the jury of the elements of intimidation. The judge properly instructed the jury that the victim’s personal reaction to the defendant’s statements was not an element of the offense but could be considered in the jury’s determination of the elements of offense, including whether the defendant wilfully employed intimidation, that is conduct or words that would instill fear in a reasonable person, and whether the defendant acted or spoke with the intent to impede, obstruct, or interfere with a criminal investigation. Also, in the instruction specifically addressing the jury’s question about the victim’s reaction, the judge did not use the word, “endeavors,” which the amendment had eliminated from the statute.

The defendant also argues that there was insufficient evidence to prove that he specifically intended to influence the victim in his role as a witness in a criminal investigation. The defendant claims that his statement, “We were just joking around right,” was too insubstantial. We disagree. The victim had just been punched in the head by the defendant. The defendant yelled the statement at the victim in a clear and decisive tone as an officer was investigating the attack, and Jose had just told the victim not to talk to the police. In these circumstances, there was sufficient evidence for a jury to convict the defendant of intimidation. Judgments affirmed.

Commentary,

The Witness Intimidation statute was amended to create greater coverage. The statute is often under used when it could be applied. The appropriate wording in the above case is “to make fearful OR timid” which is to be directed towards the potential of testifying not toward the Defendant, which leads to one asking oneself “Is he attempting to influence this potential witnesses’ testimony in an ongoing criminal investigation(s) by way of making fearful or timid?” If yes, then the statute applies.

Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

About Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

Ronald A. Sellon is a licensed Attorney in the state of Massachusetts and U.S. District Court, Massachusetts as well as a Sergeant with a Municipal Police Department and U.S. military Veteran. Additionally, he has taught Criminal Procedure at the Massachusetts State Police Academy in New Braintree and has written a text on Criminal Procedure for police field training officer programs. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, was a 2008 recipient of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (Mass C.O.P.) Presidents award and holds a Bachelors Degree in Law Enforcement, a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice Administration, and a Juris Doctor Law Degree. Questions related to content material may be directed to RSellon@PoliceLegalPromotions.com
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One Response to Witness Intimidation Does Not Require Fear

  1. What about when an opposing lawyer tries to intimidate an expert witness in a civil trial? Are there criminal implications there? Or in the event that the civil trial evidence may be used to further a criminal investigation but is not yet part of a criminal proceeding?

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