LINCOLN — Omaha police and prosecutors joined a state senator last week in pleading for help in cracking down on the harassment and threats that can prevent witnesses of crimes from testifying in court.
“There is a saying in my community: ‘snitches get stitches,’ ” said State Sen. Justin Wayne, who represents parts of northeast Omaha. “This is a serious issue in my community.”
At a public hearing on Friday, Wayne explained his proposal to increase penalties for tampering with witnesses, jurors and evidence. Legislative Bill 496 was sparked by the slaying of Army Sgt. Kyle LeFlore, who was shot and killed outside a nightclub on North 30th Street in January 2018. Prosecutors allege that a key witness in the slaying backed out after two people attempted to intimidate her.
Wayne said he knows the LeFlore family but said his bill was not aimed just at that case, but at many others in which the prosecution of criminals was halted because of fear of testifying.
“I face this issue day in and day out,” said Mike Jensen, a deputy Douglas County attorney who has been a prosecutor for 14 years. “People think their best defense ... is to tamper.”
Douglas County sees 10 to 20 cases of witness tampering a year, and Sgt. Aaron Hanson of the Omaha police gang unit said he regularly runs into crime victims who are fearful of testifying. The result is that prosecutions are dropped, he said.
LB 496, according to Wayne, would remove the “incentive” to tamper with witnesses and jurors that exists now in state law because the potential penalty for tampering is far less than sentences for serious felonies such as robbery or murder.
The current sentence for witness tampering is up to two years in prison with a presumption of being sentenced to probation instead of incarceration, which Wayne called “an absurdity.” Under his bill, the sentence would match the underlying felony charge that has been filed, so if a person is charged with a Class II felony and tampers with a witness or a jury, the person would face another Class II felony — which carries a penalty of up to 50 years in prison.
But Sen. Ernie Chambers, who also represents parts of northeast Omaha, spoke out against the bill, saying he opposed creating “a new crime.” He pledged to fight the bill if it comes up for debate, saying the problem is that police cannot protect witnesses from harm in his community.
Chambers also accused Wayne of introducing the bill for publicity’s sake, saying the proposal wouldn’t have been introduced if he didn’t know the family and the case hadn’t generated so many headlines.
Wayne denied that and rattled off a trio of homicide cases that were affected by witness tampering and three previous years in which similar bills were introduced.
“This is no stepping stone for anything else,” Wayne said. He added that he might make LB 496 his priority bill, improving its chances of passing this year.
The senator amended his bill so that it now also has the support of defense attorneys.
Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley and Spike Eickholt of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys both testified in favor of Wayne’s proposal. They cited two amendments for their support — one to increase sharing of pretrial reports from police and prosecutors with defense attorneys, and another to reduce the penalties for evidence tampering in misdemeanor crimes to a misdemeanor.
Right now, Eickholt said, someone who ate a marijuana cigarette when pulled over by police would face a $300 fine for possession of the drug, but could face a felony, and up to two years in prison, for tampering with the evidence.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee took no action on LB 496 after the public hearing on Friday.