Today, in front of City Hall in Peekskill, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer pushed legislation designed to help Westchester County law enforcement officials protect key witnesses who provide the police with information about crimes, help identify suspects, or testify during trials. The legislation also increases criminal penalties on individuals, such as gang members, who seek to intimidate witnesses. In the wake of a spate of incidents in Westchester County in which authorities have been left frustrated by the reluctance of witnesses to come forward with information, the Schumer-backed State Witness Protection Act would for the first time make witness intimidation a federal crime. It would also toughen sentences for anyone who attempts to intimidate a witness, or prevents them from going to the police with important information that could help police crack the case, or chase a lead. Additionally, the legislation Schumer is backing would increase the potential maximum penalty to 30 years in prison in cases of attempted murder or physical violence against a witness, and increase the potential maximum sentence to 20 years in jail for other types of witness intimidation, like obstruction of justice. Schumer called for the swift passage of this legislation, so that Westchester County law enforcement officials receive all the help they need to solve crimes, find and prosecute offenders, and protect the Westchester community.
"Innocent bystanders who witness violent crimes should no longer live in fear when Westchester law enforcement enlists their help to get criminals off the streets and behind bars," said Schumer. "That is why I'm unveiling a proposal to ensure that witness intimidation is a federal crime with harsh sentencing and penalties. Westchester County law enforcement officials have consistently gone above and beyond the call of duty to catch violent criminals, but many of the serious crimes they are investigating were witnessed by dozens of people who are not coming forward to help. In the past month, Westchester County authorities have been forced to issue desperate pleas to the public for information on a number of serious crimes that they believe were perpetrated in full view of witnesses. The federal government must do its part to ensure the protection of witnesses, so prosecutors in the Westchester region can build a case with visual identification at the scenes of shootings, stabbings, arson, and robberies. We can't ask the local PD to chase criminals with no leads because eyewitnesses fear for their lives. Violent assailants, from Peekskill to Mount Vernon should live in fear and must think twice before bullying a witness."
Schumer was joined by the Peekskill Police Chief Eugene S. Tumolo and other police officers; Mt. Vernon City Councilman and Chair of Public Safety & Codes Committee Richard Thomas; local Peekskill officials and other law enforcement officials from throughout Westchester; as he unveiled his plan that would beef up witness protections and allow prosecutors to build strong cases against criminals and deliver the appropriate sentences. The State Witness Protection Act, which Schumer co-sponsors with Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), aims to make witness intimidation a federal crime and strengthen penalties for those who attempt to prevent a witness from testifying in a court of law. Schumer noted that in light of unsolved violent crimes in Westchester, and concerning incidents of witness intimidation, this legislation is critical to ensuring that violent criminals receive the strong and fair sentences that they deserve. Chief Tumolo and Councilman Thomas also spoke to the role that intimidation of witnesses has played in recent Westchester crimes.
Police authorities in Westchester are concerned about several recent criminal incidents in which witnesses have either failed to come forward with information, or have acted uncooperatively with authorities once called in for questioning. In one particularly disturbing incident last month, the 20-year-old victim of a brutal stabbing on Washington Street in Peekskill refused to answer questions posed to him by authorities about the identity of his assailant, while a second witness who was with the victim at the time of the incident also refused to cooperate with the police.
Authorities are also concerned about a hit-and-run incident on Lake Welch Drive near to Stony Point on July 17th, which left a female jogger in a critical condition in hospital. Although the incident took place in broad daylight, local police were forced to issue a public plea for information.
That incident took place on the same day as reports emerged in the Hudson Valley press that two men had been arrested over what appears to be a deeply disturbing incident of witness intimidation. The men are accused of setting fire to the house of a Mount Vernon man who they believed had earlier "ratted" them out to police, and now face charges of arson, witness tampering, and intimidation.
"Victims of violent crime deserve justice," said Councilman Richard Thomas, also the Chairman, Public Safety & Codes for the City of Mt. Vernon. "Unfortunately, for too long, criminals have been able to undermine the law without fear of serious consequences. I applaud Senator Schumer for taking a stand against these violent offenders and arming local law enforcement with the necessary tools to bring them to justice. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles - no family member should have to live in fear of violent retribution for reporting crimes which they have witnessed. Stricter penalties for those who try to cover up the truth will change the dynamic of public safety. Senator Schumer's witness protection bill is a vital first step to returning safety to our communities.
Although arrests were successfully made in that case, the numerous other instances of witnesses failing to come forward with information in Westchester County, suggests that criminals are successfully fueling a climate of fear and intimidation. In addition, it is abundantly clear that witness intimidation must be harshly punished once criminals are caught, so as to deter the behavior in the future. The State Witness Protection Act is designed to remedy that. First, it aims to allow federal prosecutors to investigate and bring charges on witness intimidation. Specifically, it makes it a federal crime to kill or attempt to kill; use or threat of physical force; harass, intimidate or attempt to intimate; or offer anything of value to another individual, with the intent to influence, delay, or prevent the testimony of an individual in a State official proceeding. The bill would also make it a crime to cause a person to withhold testimony, to prevent communication of information of the crime to a law enforcement official or a judge, and to retaliate against a witness for their attendance or supply of information at a State proceeding. Also, the legislation would cover cases involving interstate or foreign commerce, either through communication, personal travel, or the transfer of a weapon.
Schumer noted that the State Witness Protection Act also sets tough new penalties for witness intimidation. This provides the same penalties that currently exist in federal court in the case of a killing of a witness, including the possibility of the death sentence. It also increases the maximum penalty to 30 years imprisonment, up from the current state penalty of 25 years, in the case of attempted murder or the use of physical force. The bill sets a maximum of 20 years imprisonment for other types of witness intimidation, up from no more than seven years under state law. Finally, the Schumer-backed bill would direct the United States Sentencing Commission to increase federal sentencing guidelines for obstruction of justice.
This law attempts to curb the scourge of witness intimidation that has prevented Westchester law enforcement from putting a number of violent criminals behind bars. The following list details a few examples of recent cases for which local police departments need witnesses to come forward:
* On July 31st, a 74-year-old woman suffered serious injuries after being hit by a SUV in neighboring Rockland County. No charges have yet been filed, because no witnesses have been forthcoming with information about the incident.
* On July 22nd, a 20-year-old male was stabbed on a sidewalk on Washington St. in Peekskill. The victim, and a witness who was with the victim when police arrived, failed to cooperate with police, and authorities were subsequently forced to issue a plea for information to the public.
* On July 18th, a 21-year-old woman jogger was hit by a car at the intersection of Seven Lakes Drive and Lake Welch Drive between 5 and 5.20 p.m., leaving her in a critical condition in Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. Investigators were forced to issue a plea for information to the public, after no witnesses were initially forthcoming.