Victim Witness Unit
General Information for Victims & Witnesses
The United States Attorney is the chief prosecutor of crimes against the laws of the United States. There is a United States Attorney's Office for each federal judicial district.
- You are entitled to understand what is happening in the case in which you are involved
If you have questions about the case in which you are involved, you should feel free to call the Victim Witness Unit or the agent who is handing the case and ask questions. Also, the Assistant United States Attorney may be contacting you throughout the case regarding various stages of the proceeding.
- You are entitled to a witness fee for every day that you appear in court in connection with the case
If you are not a federal government employee, you will receive a witness fee for each day that you are required to attend court in connection with the case, including time spent waiting to testify. Out-of-town witnesses receive reimbursement for certain travel expenses in addition to their daily witness fee. At the conclusion of your testimony, you will be assisted in completing a witness voucher to make a claim for your fees. Generally, a check for all fees will be mailed to you by the U.S. Marshals Service a week to ten days after your appearance.
If you are a federal government employee, the United States Attorney's Office will submit a Certificate of Attendance that will enable you to receive your regular salary, notwithstanding your absence from your job. You will not collect a witness fee in addition to that salary.
- You have the right to be free from any threats
If anyone threatens you, or you feel that you're being harassed because of your contribution to the case being tried, you should immediately notify the United States Attorney's Office, or the law enforcement agency conducting the investigation. If it is an emergency situation please call 911 then later contact the agent or the U.S. Attorney's Office. It is a federal offense to threaten, intimidate, harass, or mislead a witness in a criminal proceeding. Victims and witnesses have the right to be free of harassment or intimidation by the defendant or others.
The court may release the defendant while (s)he is awaiting trial under conditions that satisfy the court that the defendant will appear in court for all hearings and for trial. The court may require the defendant to post money or property bond pending trial. You should not be surprised if you happen to see the defendant on release prior to trial. Nevertheless, if you have any concerns about the conditions of the defendant's release, please discuss them with the Assistant United States Attorney or the agent handling the case.
Of course, if you are threatened or harassed while you are attending court proceedings, you should report that fact immediately to the investigator and the Assistant United States Attorney assigned to the case.
- Discussing the case with others
United States Attorney's Offices often receive calls from witnesses asking about their rights if a defense attorney or a defense investigator contacts them. Witnesses do not belong to either side of a criminal case. Thus, even though you may first be subpoenaed by the prosecution or by the defense, it is proper for the other side to try to talk to you. While it is the prosecution that is asking for your cooperation in this case, you may be contacted by the defense lawyer or an investigator for the defendant for an interview. While you may discuss the case with them if you wish to do so, you also have the right not to talk to them. The choice is entirely yours.
If you do agree to an interview with a representative of the government or defense, here are some suggestions on how to deal with it.
First and foremost, you should always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
If you are asked to give a statement or to discuss the case, you have the right to know if the person asking you is working for the prosecution or the defendant. You have the right to see and keep a copy of that person's business card.
If you give a statement to a lawyer or an investigator for the government or the defense, you do not have to sign the statement. However, any statement that you make during an interview, even if not signed, may be used to try to challenge or discredit your testimony in court if your testimony differs from that statement. This applies even to oral statements that are not reduced to writing at all.
If you decide to sign a statement, make sure you read it over very carefully beforehand and correct any mistakes.
Ask to have a copy of any statement that you make. Whether you sign the statement or not, you may tell the lawyer or investigator that you will refuse to give a statement unless you receive a copy of it.
If you elect to have an interview with the defendant's lawyer or investigator, you may want to have present an additional person chosen by you to witness the interview. If you have an interview with the defendant's lawyer or investigator, please let the United States Attorney's Office know about the interview before it happens.
Before the trial begins, you may discuss the case with anyone you wish. The choice is yours. Be sure you know to whom you are talking when you discuss the case. We encourage you not to discuss the case with members of the press, since you are a potential witness in a criminal case and the rights of the government and the defendant to a fair trial could be jeopardized by pretrial publicity.
Once the trial begins, witnesses may not tell each other what was said during the testimony until after the case is over. Thus, do not ask other witnesses about their testimony and do not volunteer information about your own.
- Scheduling your appearance in court
There are several kinds of court hearings in a case in which you might be asked to testify. These include a preliminary hearing, a grand jury appearance, a motion hearing, and an appearance in court for trial or sentencing. It is difficult to schedule court hearings at a time convenient for everyone involved. Any court hearing requires the presence of witnesses, law enforcement officers, the defendant's lawyer, an Assistant United States Attorney, and the judge, as well as the defendant.
Therefore, when the court sets a time and place for such a hearing in the case you are involved in, you must be there promptly, unless an emergency prevents it. And if you have been sent a subpoena - a formal order to appear - you should know that there are serious penalties for those who do not obey that order.
If you know in advance anything that might keep you from making a court appearance, let the Assistant United States Attorney know immediately so that an attempt may be made to adjust the schedule. However, scheduling is at the discretion of the court. Despite the best efforts of everyone concerned, court hearings do not always take place on schedule - the hearing or trial is sometimes postponed or continued to a new date. When possible, the Assistant United States Attorney handling the case in which you are involved will discuss with you any proposed scheduling change. Also, the United States Attorney's Office will notify you of any postponements in advance of your appearance at court.
- Planning your trip to court
As a victim or witness, you may have questions about transportation, the location of the courthouse, food service, or where to go and what time to appear. The United States Attorney's Office has assembled information on these subjects. You should feel free to ask either the case agent, the Assistant United States Attorney, or the Victim/Witness Coordinator about them.
- How cases turn out
Many criminal cases are concluded without a trial being held. In many cases, the evidence of the defendant's guilt is so strong that (s)he pleads guilty to the crime. Guilty pleas and other ways the case may end without a trial are discussed below.
- Guilty Plea
The defendant may choose to plead guilty. By pleading guilty, the defendant waives his or her right to a trial. Generally, the guilty plea constitutes a conviction.
- Plea Agreement
The Assistant United States Attorney may enter into an agreement with the defendant whereby, if the defendant pleads guilty to certain charges, the government will ask the court to dismiss other charges, or will take another position with respect to the sentence imposed or some other action. Sometimes, the defendant will agree to plead guilty to one or more of the charges or to a less serious or related offense. This process of obtaining a defendant's agreement to plead is recognized by the courts as a proper way of disposing of criminal cases. In fact, the United States Supreme Court held that agreed-upon pleas are to be encouraged.
The government usually benefits in several ways by entering into an agreement for a guilty plea to certain charges rather than going to trial against a defendant on all charges. One benefit is the guarantee of a conviction. Criminal cases always involve risks and uncertainties. Even a case that appears to be very strong may not result in a conviction if there is a trial. And in many cases, there is a possibility that certain evidence may not be admitted. The Assistant United States Attorney will consider this in deciding to agree to a plea to certain charges. Another benefit of plea agreements is the prompt and certain imposition of sentence, which is a major goal of the criminal justice system. A third benefit is that they help to obtain pleas and convictions of other defendants. Often, the Assistant United States Attorney will require, as a condition of a plea, cooperation of the defendant in further investigation or prosecution of others. Also, since there is no trial and no witnesses are called to testify, the identity of informants and witnesses can remain undisclosed. This preserves an informant's usefulness in other investigations, and prevents inconvenience and emotional stress that witnesses might experience when they have to testify.
In deciding to accept certain pleas, the Assistant United States Attorney considers the effect of the criminal offense on the victims, the criminal history of the defendant, the seriousness of the offense, and the interest of society in seeing all crimes punished with certainty. The Assistant United States Attorney will also consider whether the proposed plea will expose the defendant to a maximum punishment that is appropriate even though the defendant may not plead guilty to all charges.
- Declination and Dismissal
A case referred to the United States Attorney may not be acted upon, which is called a declination, or may be dismissed after it has been filed with the court. There are several reasons why cases may be declined or dismissed.
An Assistant United States Attorney has discretion to decline to prosecute a case based on several considerations. The Assistant United States Attorney must decline if the evidence is too weak. The Assistant United States Attorney is ethically bound not to bring criminal charges unless the admissible evidence will probably be sufficient to obtain a conviction. However, even when the evidence is sufficient, the Assistant United States Attorney may consider that there is not a sufficient federal interest served by prosecution, but that the defendant is subject to prosecution in another state or local court (including a state court for the prosecution of juvenile delinquents).
A dismissal may occur when the Assistant United States Attorney asks the court to do so. The Assistant United States Attorney may do so because the court has excluded critical evidence or witnesses have become unavailable. In other situations, evidence which weakens the case may come to light after the case has started. The court may dismiss a case over the objection of the Assistant United States Attorney when it determines that the evidence is insufficient to find the defendant guilty.
- Pre-Trial Diversion
In selected cases, an Assistant United States Attorney may decide not to try a defendant right away or to bring charges immediately. Instead, the defendant is placed in a Pre-Trial Diversion Program. Under this program, the United States and the defendant enter into a contract in which the defendant agrees to comply with certain conditions and to be supervised by the United States Probation Office for a period of time, usually one year. One of the conditions may be to pay the victims of a crime for their losses - make restitution. If the defendant successfully complies with all of the conditions, no charges will be brought. If, however, the defendant fails to meet a condition, charges may be filed.
The Pre-Trial Diversion Program is designed for those defendants who do not appear likely to engage in further criminal conduct and who appear to be able to be rehabilitated. Overall, the objectives of the program are to prevent future criminal activity by certain defendants who would benefit by diversion from traditional punishment into community supervision and services. The program also helps to make criminal sanctions more appropriate to the individual offenders, and it saves judicial and prosecutive resources for concentration on major crimes.
Several factors may be considered in deciding upon diversion, including the criminal record of the defendant, the willingness of the defendant to make restitution, and the likelihood that the defendant may engage in further criminal conduct. Additionally, before a defendant may enter into a diversion program, the United States Probation Office must agree to supervise the defendant, and the defendant usually must admit that he or she committed the wrongdoing.
- Guilty Plea
- If your property is being held as evidenc
Sometimes law enforcement officers take and store property belonging to witnesses as evidence in a trial. This might be property that was taken by law enforcement officers at the crime scene or that was stolen. If your property is being held as evidence by law enforcement officers and you would like to regain your property before the case is over, you should notify the law enforcement officer or the Assistant United States Attorney who is handling the case in which you are involved. Many times arrangements can be made for early release of property. That is a determination to be made considering the value of the property as evidence at trial. In any event, when the case is over, you should be able to have your property returned to you promptly. In those instances where this cannot be achieved, the Assistant United States Attorney will explain the reasons why.
- Recovering financial losses
Often, crime means a real financial loss for the victim. Perhaps you had cash or valuable property stolen (and not recovered), have property that was damaged, medical expenses, or a loss of income because you could not work, or the nature of the crime may be that you have been defrauded of money belonging to you. If any of these things has happened to you, please check to see if you have insurance which will cover the loss. If you have no insurance or only partial coverage, there are three possible ways of trying to recover your losses. Unfortunately, these three ways discussed below, are not always effective in many cases.
Crime victims' compensation programs, administered by the states, provide financial assistance to victims and survivors of victims of criminal violence. Payments are made for medical expenses, including expenses for mental health counseling and care; loss of wages attributable to a physical injury; and funeral expenses attributable to a death resulting from a compensable crime. Each state establishes its own instructions for applying for crime victims compensation, procedures to be used in processing applications, approval authority, and dollar limits for awards to victims.
When an offender gives back things s/he stole from a victim, or otherwise makes good on the losses s/he has caused, s/he has given restitution to the victim.
From the point of view of effective law enforcement, the time to seek restitution is when the defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty. If that is the final result of the case - which is never a sure thing - the trial judge must consider, by law, restitution as part of the offender's sentence.
The United States Attorney's Office will send you a form known as a "Victim Impact Statement" when they provide notification of the guilty finding or guilty plea entered by the defendant. This form is to be returned to the United States Probation Officer assigned to this case, who will use these statements from victims in his or her preparation of a "Pre-Sentence Investigation" report, which is submitted to the court with a recommendation for restitution that is to be paid to the victims by the defendant. It is very important that you provide this information to the Probation Officer, or your opportunity to have the court order restitution could be lost forever. Since you will receive this form many months, or even years, after the date of the offense, due to the time it takes a federal case to work it's way through the criminal justice system, you should start now to collect evidence of your loss, insurance records showing how much your insurance company reimbursed you, and any other pertinent documents you think will prove to the court that your alleged loss is valid and should be repaid by the defendant.
Orders of Restitution are liens in favor of the United States on all property and rights to property of the person fined as if it were liability for unpaid taxes. The lien arises on the entry of judgment and continues until satisfied, remitted or set aside, or for twenty (20) years plus the period of incarceration or the death of the defendant. (18 U.S.C. Sec. 3613(c))
- Civil Damages
A victim may try to recover his or her losses by a civil lawsuit against the defendant. Such a private lawsuit is completely separate from the criminal case. In fact, the jury in a civil case may find that the defendant owes the victim money, even though a different jury in the criminal case may find the defendant not guilty because the burden of proof is higher in a criminal case.
At the request of a victim named in a Restitution Order, the clerk of the court shall issue an abstract of judgment certifying that a judgment has been entered in favor of such victim in the amount specified in the Restitution Order. This abstract of judgment may be filed with the state's court and serve as a lien on the property of the defendant located in such state. (18 U.S.C. Sec. 3664(m)(1)(B)) Victims wishing to file state liens against the offender's property should consult with their private attorney.
The difficulty in trying to obtain civil damages from the defendant is the same as in trying to get restitution; whatever money the defendant once had may now be gone. You may need a lawyer to bring such a suit. If you qualify, you may be able to get help free of charge from legal aid services. On the other hand, if your total losses are small, then you may not need a lawyer at all. You may be able to bring your own lawsuit without the assistance of a lawyer.