What Is Witness Protection?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 23, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you've watched just about any mob movie in the last 30 years or so, you've heard the phrase "witness protection program." It either involves a former gangster going in (like the end of Goodfellas) or comically navigating his new life (like My Blue Heaven). There are all kinds of conditions like changing names and moving to the suburbs, and always the risk of whomever the gangster is testifying against hunting them down.

But how does witness protection actually work? Here's a look.

Protection Provisions

The idea behind witness protection programs is to encourage people with knowledge of crimes and criminal enterprises, but fearful of their personal safety, to testify. While states -- and even some cities -- have or are starting to implement their own witness protection plans, the program most think of when they hear "witness protection" is the U.S. Marshals Service's Witness Security Program, or WITSEC.

Begun in 1970 under the Organized Crime Control Act, the law allows the Marshals Service, at the behest of the U.S. Attorney's Office, to provide witnesses a new Social Security number and other identifying documents in order to establish a new identity. The program can also cover immediate family or a person closely associated with the witness and including housing, relocation costs, basic living expenses, employment assistance, and other services.

The U.S. Marshals website says the program has protected, relocated, and provided new identities to over 8,600 witnesses and 9,900 family members since its inception, and claims "No Witness Security Program participant, following program guidelines, has been harmed or killed while under the active protection of the U.S. Marshals Service."

Witness Eligibility

Of course, not every witness in a criminal case is eligible for protection. The Justice Department requires extensive information for each WITSEC application, including witness ID, the significance of the case, the expected testimony, and the threat to the witness, and looks at four factors when decided on whether to grant witness protection:

  1. The possible danger the witness and/or adult family members pose to other persons or property in the relocation area if placed in the Program, with complete explanation;
  2. Whether or not the need for the witness's testimony outweighs the risk of danger the witness or adult family members may pose to the public and why;
  3. What alternatives to Program use were considered and why they will not work; and
  4. Whether there are any child custody problems associated with the relocation of the witness or adult family members.

If you've witnessed a crime and are concerned for your safety or that of a loved one, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your options.

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