Tuesday, May 31, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Federal Witness Tampering Statute

Last week the Supreme Court clarified the meaning of the Federal Witness Tampering Statute which makes it a crime "to kill another person, with intent to... prevent communication by any person to a Federal law enforcement officer" regarding "information relating to the... possible commission of a federal crime." Fowler, the petitioner in this case, killed a local law enforcement officer who discovered and prevented Fowler from robbing a bank. The question for the Court was whether Fowler intended to kill the officer in order to prevent communication about the crime to a federal officer.

In a 7-2 decision, the Court rejected the argument that there only needed to be a possibility of potential communications with a federal officer. Rather, the Court held that the statute requires a "reasonable likelihood" that the would-be recipient of the information was a federal official. Specifically, the Court stated, "it must be reasonably likely under the circumstances that (in the absence of the killing) at least one of the relevant communications would have been made to a federal officer." This test requires more than a mere possibility, but less than beyond a reasonable doubt or preponderance of the evidence.
The Court ultimately remanded to the trial court with instructions to determine if there was a "reasonable likelihood" that the officer would have communicated information about Fowler's crime to federal law enforcement.

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