Witness protection is security provided to a threatened person providing testimonial evidence to the justice system, including defendants and other clients, before, during, and after a trial, usually by police. While a witness may only require protection until the conclusion of a trial, some witnesses are provided with a new identity and may live out the rest of their lives under government protection.
Witness protection is usually required in trials against organized crime, where law enforcement sees a risk for witnesses to be intimidated by colleagues of defendants. It is also used at war crime trials.
Not all countries have formal witness protection programs; instead, local police may implement informal protection as the need arises in specific cases.
Canada's Witness Protection Program Act received Royal Assent on June 20, 1996. The program is run by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), with support by all levels of government and police forces.
Several departments of the Security Bureau of Hong Kong have specialized units to provide protection for witnesses and their families who face threats to their life. Notable units include the Witness Protection Unit (WPU) of the Hong Kong Police Force, the Witness Protection and Firearms Section (R4) of the ICAC, and the WPU of the Hong Kong Customs.
The members of these units undergo training in protection, firearms, self-defence, physical and tactical training. They are mostly trained in the use of, and issued, the Glock 19 compact handgun as sidearm. The standard Glock 17 or the long arms such as the Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine gun or the Remington Model 870 shotgun may be issued if the witness faces bigger threats. A new identity could be given to a witness, and the government may relocate them far from Hong Kong if the witness is still being threatened after the end of the trial.
The Witness Security Programme in the Republic of Ireland is administered by the Attorney General of Ireland, and is operated by the elite Special Detective Unit (SDU) of the Garda Síochána, the national police force. The programme was officially established in 1997, following the assassination of journalist Veronica Guerin by a drugs gang she was reporting on. Witnesses in the program are given a new identity, address and armed police protection either in Ireland or abroad (generally in Anglophone countries). They are usually provided with financial assistance, as witnesses regularly must leave their previous employment. Witness protection is used in cases of serious, organised crime and terrorism. The Irish Government will only grant protection to those who cooperate with investigations conducted by the Garda Síochána. Court appearances by witnesses in protection are carried out under the security of the Emergency Response Unit (ERU), the highest-tier special weapons and tactical operations group in Irish law enforcement. There has never been a reported breach of security in which a protectee was harmed.
The Israeli Witness Protection Authority, a unit within the Ministry of Public Security is in charge of witness protection in Israel. The unit was created by law with the passing of the Witness Protection Law, 2008.
The witness protection program in Italy was officially established in 1991, managed by the Central Protection Department (Servizio centrale di protezione) of the Polizia di Stato. Previously, witnesses were usually protected in exceptional cases by the police, but this often proved insufficient. In particular the witness protection program was focused on protecting the so-called pentiti, former members of criminal or terrorist organizations who, breaking the code of silence, decided to cooperate with the authorities.
During the 1980s, at the Maxi Trial against Cosa Nostra, informants Tommaso Buscetta and Salvatore Contorno were protected by the FBI due to the lack of a witness protection program in Italy. Although pentiti (usually from politically motivated terrorist organizations) had come forward since the 1970s during the so-called Years of Lead, it was not until the early 1990s that the program was officially established to efficiently manage the stream of pentiti which had defected from the major criminal organizations in Italy at the time, such as Cosa Nostra, the Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta, the Sacra Corona Unita, the Banda della Magliana and several others. Most of the witnesses are given new identities and live under government protection for several years, or sometimes their entire life.
The witness protection program in Italy has sometimes come under criticism for failing to properly protect certain witnesses, as was the case with the murders of high-profile pentiti Claudio Sicilia and Luigi Ilardo.
The New Zealand Police provide protection for witnesses against members of criminal gangs and serious criminals who feel threatened or intimidated. They run a Witness Protection Programme that monitors the welfare of witnesses and if necessary, helps create new identities. There is an agreement between the police and the Department of Corrections to ensure that protected witnesses receive appropriate protection from that department. In 2007 the programme became the subject of public controversy when a protected witness's previous conviction for drunk driving was withheld from police and he continued driving, eventually killing another motorist in a road accident while drunk.
Thailand maintains a witness protection office under the jurisdiction of the country's Ministry of Justice. Between 1996 and 1997 provisions were drafted for inclusion of a section covering witness protection in the kingdom's 16th constitution, and finally, the witness protection provision was included in the constitution and took effect in the middle of 2003. Thailand's Office of Witness Protection maintains a website.
In Ukraine, depending on the nature of the case and the location of the trial, the safety of witnesses is the responsibility of different agencies, such as the special judicial police unit Gryphon (part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs), the Security Service of Ukraine and, formerly, the special police unit Berkut.
The UK has a nationwide witness protection system managed by the UK Protected Persons Service (UKPPS), responsible for the safety of around 3,000 people. The UKPPS is part of the National Crime Agency. The service is delivered regionally by local police forces. Prior to the formation of the UKPPS in 2013, witness protection was solely the responsibility of local police forces.
The United States established a formal program of witness protection, run by the U.S. Marshals Service, under the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. Before that, witness protection had been instituted under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 to protect people testifying against members of the Ku Klux Klan. Earlier in the 20th century, the Federal Bureau of Investigation also occasionally crafted new identities to protect witnesses.
Many states, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York and Texas, as well as Washington, D.C., have their own witness protection programs for crimes not covered by the federal program. The state-run programs provide less extensive protections than the federal program. They also cannot hold or have as many people involved as the federal program.
Before witness protection funds can be sought, law enforcement must conduct an assessment of the threat or potential for danger. This assessment includes an analysis of the extent the person or persons making the threats appear to have the resources, intent, and motivation to carry out the threats and how credible and serious the threats appear to be. When threats are deemed credible and witnesses request law enforcement assistance, witness protection funds can be used to provide assistance to witnesses which helps law enforcement keep witnesses safe and help ensure witnesses appear in court and provide testimony.
Special arrangements, known as S-5 and S-6 visas, also exist to bring key alien witnesses into the US from overseas. T visas may be used to admit into the United States victims of human trafficking willing to assist in prosecuting the traffickers.