Police depend on tips from eyewitnesses to contact them to help solve crimes. But what risk do witnesses take on by cooperating?
State Sen. Joe Gruters wants to erase some of the concern. He’s introduced legislation (SB 1766) to protect witnesses who call into Crime Stoppers with information. Should the bill become law, those engaged in such privileged conversations when they call in information won’t have their identity disclosed.
“The key is take make sure you protect witness information,” said Gruters.
The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice will hear the bill today.
That means not releasing the identity of a key witness before they testify. The Sarasota Republican sponsored the bill after being approached by Frank Brunner, executive director for Manatee CrimeStoppers.
Gruters’ legislation establishes communication with crime stoppers as “privileged,” which puts the information under Florida Evidence Code.
Anyone who discloses a tipster’s identity could be prosecuted for a third-degree felony.
Florida has 27 Crime Stoppers programs in operation today, and those programs can give rewards to those who provide good information to police.
So what does protect a witness’ identity mean for the rights of the accused? The bill does allow defendants to petition the court if they feel protecting the identity of someone bringing information against them violates their constitutional rights.
The provision can only come into effect if it’s important to a defendant’s case and speaks directly to their guilt or innocence.
But 10 other states already allow Crime Stoppers and law enforcement to protect the identity of witnesses, and six of those make it a crime to reveal the witness’ identity improperly.
The bill makes clear tipsters, even if they don’t want their identity revealed, can still be eligible for rewards.
The hope is that the bill will result in more individuals coming forward with information that helps police, generating a net good for society.