Supreme Court rules witness tampering law requires likelihood of communication

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] in Fowler v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder] that under a federal witness tampering statute [18 USC § 1512(a)(1)(C) text] the government must show there was a reasonable likelihood the witness would communicate relevant information to federal officers. Charles Fowler was convicted of killing a local police officer who had caught him and a group of accomplices preparing to rob a bank. The 7-2 opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer rejected the government's proposed rule that it only must establish the murder was committed to prevent a possible or potential communication to federal officers. The court found this standard to weigh too heavily in favor of the government. Still, the court said it is not necessary to show that a relevant communication to federal officers was actually or intended to be made. The court said the intent requirement was whether the murder was made "to prevent" relevant communications:

That is to say, where the defendant kills a person with an intent to prevent communication with law enforcement officers generally, that intent includes an intent to prevent communications with federal law enforcement officers only if it is reasonably likely under the circumstances that (in the absence of the killing) at least one of the relevant communications would have been made to a federal officer.
The court remanded the case for application of its ruling. Justice Antonin Scalia concurred but filed a separate opinion arguing that the standard should be whether "the defendant intended to prevent a communication which, had it been made, would beyond a reasonable doubt have been made to a federal law enforcement officer." He agreed that the case should be remanded but said he would hold that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction since there was little evidence that the local police officer would have reported it to federal officers. Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented arguing that the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction because a rational jury could infer that Fowler had intent to prevent the local officer from communicating evidence to a spectrum of law enforcement officers including federal officers.

At oral arguments [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] Fowler's counsel argued that the court should apply a narrower, "realistic likelihood" standard when determining if the victim would have provided information to federal authorities, rather than the government's vague, "reasonably possible" standard. The government responded that the reasonableness standard gives the jury discretion to determine whether a victim could have provided evidence to a federal agent, since it is not possible to know the "specific intent" of the deceased victim. The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled [decision, PDF] that Fowler violated the statute by killing the police officer. Fowler protested that prosecutors failed to establish that it was likely the officer would transfer information to federal investigators or that it was likely that a federal investigation would be opened. The court held, however, that prosecutors need only establish that the defendant killed the victim to prevent the communication of a possible federal offense and that they had met that burden.

 

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