The South Dakota Capitol building in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
Abusive partners could face a decade in prison for trying to convince their significant others to change their story, under a bill promoted by Attorney General Marty Jackley.
Senate Bill 50 would apply the crime of witness tampering to anyone who “corruptly persuades or corruptly influences another person” to alter their testimony “with an intent to impede the administration of justice.”
Witness tampering cases in South Dakota
2013: 18 charges, 3 prison sentences
2014: 14 charges, 5 prison sentences
2015: 44 charges, 2 prison sentences
2016: 41 charges, 6 prison sentences
2017: 37 charges, 4 prison sentences
2018: 33 charges, 5 prison sentences
2019: 62 charges, 11 prison sentences
2020: 42 charges, 6 prison sentences
2021: 40 charges, 10 prison sentences
2022: 34 charges, 8 prison sentences
The updated verbiage is necessary because the language of the current witness tampering law isn’t clear enough to be used in most circumstances, Jackley told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
“I think the real reason we need this is in the realm of domestic violence,” Jackley said. “We’re experiencing a lot of questionable conduct, conduct where it doesn’t necessarily fit into a bribery and there isn’t any money exchanged, but clearly you have individuals that have done wrong and are continuing to do wrong.”
If passed and signed into law, prosecutors would be able to charge those who coerce victims to recant with a class 4 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Manipulation common in domestic violence cases
The change could be a significant tool for law enforcement in partner abuse cases. Such cases typically represent an outsize share of assault arrests for local agencies. The Sioux Falls Police Department logged 1,233 domestic simple assault arrests in 2021. Simple assaults without a domestic violence component added up to 890.
The dynamics of personal or familial relationships complicate matters in those cases, Jackley said. Success in court hinges on the cooperation of a victim whose life is entwined with the defendant.
“Domestic violence is much more challenging to prosecute than a bar fight that was caught on video,” Jackley said.
Victim manipulation is common, but consequences for manipulation are not. Spouses may threaten to draw out a custody battle over a child if their partner cooperates with police, or vow to change their ways if their partner stops returning calls from detectives. But they’re unlikely to face a witness tampering charge under current law, because it doesn’t define “tampering” with specificity.
“The current language ‘with intent to influence a witness’ is pretty broad and general,” Jackley told lawmakers. “And the case law gives us instruction that we need to basically have ‘corruption’ as part of it.”
An amendment offered by Sen. David Wheeler, R-Huron, added a definition of “corruption” to Jackley’s original bill. The attorney general described that as a friendly move that would make it easier for prosecutors to make a case if the bill becomes law.
Update could aid other types of cases
The update could be useful for any crime that leans on witness testimony.
“What we also see in a lot of cases where we have juvenile victims is maybe you have a parent, a significant other or the other parent that is a suspect in these cases, and they attempt to get the child to change their story, bribe them or remove them from the situation,” said Madison Police Chief Justin Meyer, who was among those testifying in favor of the bill.
Statistics from the Unified Judicial System show that for all but one of the past nine calendar years, fewer than 50 cases of witness tampering have been filed statewide, with a high of 62 in 2019. That year also saw the highest number of prison sentences, at 11.
Jackley’s bill did not pass out of committee on Thursday, however. Sen. Wheeler suggested that the new language, while important, might overlap with the crime of subornation of perjury. That statute applies to those who induce others to lie under oath, as opposed to tampering with a witness more broadly to convince them to adjust or withdraw testimony.
The committee voted to defer action on the bill while Wheeler and Jackley work out an update to clarify the respective roles of that subornation law and witness tampering.
”I think this is good movement towards making sure we do take care of all different ways you can tamper with a witness,” Wheeler said.
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