Stronger penalty proposed for witness tampering

Creating a stronger deterrent to the crime of witness tampering was discussed during a hearing of the Judiciary Committee Jan. 19.

Sen. Robert Hilkemann

Currently, tampering with a witness in an attempt to change the outcome of a felony charge is categorized as a Class IV felony, which carries a penalty of up to two years in prison with one year of post-release supervision, a fine of up to $10,000 or both.

LB102, introduced by Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann, would raise the offense to a Class II felony, which carries a penalty of one to 50 years in prison. Hilkemann said witness tampering is a serious problem impacting the successful prosecution of violent crimes.

“As a state senator, it’s my job to ensure that, as a state, we are tough on crime,” he said. “[LB102] would ensure witnesses feel safe in coming forward with valuable information so that serious and violent crimes could be effectively prosecuted.”

Matt Kuhse, Omaha city prosecutor, supported the bill, saying a person facing life in prison for murder could convince a key witness to disappear, resulting in a dismissed case. If found guilty of tampering, that person would face up to only two years in prison under current law.

“Increasing the penalty from a Class IV to Class II felony would serve as a deterrent,” Kuhse said. “Maybe a little more thought goes on before engaging in tampering when they could be convicted of a more serious crime.”

Omaha Deputy Police Chief Greg Gonzalez also testified in support of the bill.

“To get witnesses to come forward and then to not have them on the first day of trial is disheartening,” he said. “[The bill] would add credence to the system insofar as protecting the integrity of our witnesses.”

Mandy Gruhlkey, representing the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, opposed LB102 saying the leap from a potential two-year sentence to a 50-year penalty is too extreme. Language regarding who may be charged under the bill also is too vague, she said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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