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Victims Have No Rights!

Posted on 5th May 2017

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There is really rather a lot in this BBC news report that is shocking, worrying or just downright confusing.

It turns out that surprisingly large numbers of people are arrested in the USA every year under material witness warrants, because the police want them to give evidence against someone, and are concerned that they may not turn up at court to do so, if not forced. In just one parish, Orleans Parish, there were at least 30 cases last year in which material witness warrants were issued; this is according to a local non-profit justice watchdog, Court Watch NOLA, because the District Attorneys (prosecutors) office does not keep records of these warrants.

We are not talking about just one night in jail, as typically people held under these warrants are held for days. This seems excessive.

In the aftermath of 9/11 material witness warrants were used as a way to detain suspects without "probable cause": at least 70 men were held as material witnesses in the aftermath of the attacks while the Justice Department looked for evidence; a third of them were in prison for more than two months, some for more than six months, and one witness detainee spent more than a year in prison.

What makes this situation even more scary is that people detained under material witness warrants do not have the usual "Miranda" rights: e.g. the right to a phone call, a lawyer (or a public defender) and the right to a prompt appearance before a judge.

In the example case with which the news story leads, Marc Mitchell was arrested without being given a reason or charge on which he was being arrested. This is something that I thought people had a legal right to be told, but maybe I am wrong. If they don't have such a right, then they should have.

Another thing that concerns me is the embarrassment that the police cause to the people whom they arrest under these warrants, partly because they do not even seem to know why they are arresting these people. Marc Mitchell could easily have lost his job, after being taken away in handcuffs in front of his colleagues and customers. I hope that he has the sense to sue for the damage to his reputation.

The icing on the cake is that these material witnesses are then usually incarcerated in the same jails as the people against whom they are to give evidence, putting them and their families in danger of retaliation and blackmail.

What really surprises me is that it seems that, under US law, witnesses have no legal right to refuse to testify if it puts their life in danger. The USA has the 5th Amendment to The Constitution, giving witnesses and defendants the right to refuse to incriminate themselves, but no right to refuse to ensure their safety. I strongly feel that this is a right that is needed, and that probably an additional constitutional amendment is urgently called for.