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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2019 - 2020 Regular Session


Posted: August 27, 2019 04:37 PM
From: Senator Vincent J. Hughes
To: All Senate members
Subject: Exception to the Use of Material Witness Warrants
In the near future I plan to introduce a bill that will help prevent the re-victimization of and additional trauma to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault by limiting the circumstances in which material witness warrants can be issued for these types of cases.

Through the use of material witness warrants, victims of domestic violence are often re-victimized by the very system meant to protect them. Under current practices, victims may be retraumatized, which can lead to victims recanting their story or refusing to testify against their abuser altogether. After their ordeal, many victims resolve themselves to not seeking out future help.

In Louisiana, Renata Singleton had an argument with her boyfriend, which escalated into a physical altercation. After Singleton’s daughter called 911, the boyfriend was arrested and jailed overnight. When attempts to get in touch with Ms. Singleton proved unsuccessful, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office obtained a material witness warrant to try and force her to testify. She was jailed for five days.

In Texas, a woman who had been the victim of a sexual assault was subjected to a material witness warrant and jailed prior to trial. At trial she broke down during her testimony and had to leave the court room. After being hospitalized for 10 days in the county psychiatric hospital, she was detained in the county jail in general population where she was re-victimized and her mental health rapidly deteriorated. This happened during the Christmas holiday and it was not until January that she was released.

These stories are far from an outlier: it is a tale told too often by victims of domestic abuse and sexual crimes. And this is happening in Pennsylvania. In our Commonwealth we have accounts from domestic violence advocates and rape crisis advocates of this tactic being used against victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. While victims are not always incarcerated, the threat of being incarcerated is often used to compel the witness’s testimony.

My legislation will prohibit the use of a material witness warrant to secure the presence of victims of abuse related crimes, sexual offenses, and human trafficking offenses. The protection of the victims of these heinous crimes must be our top priority and we cannot protect them by incarcerating them. Let’s put an end to the re-victimization of these survivors and ensure they will not be retraumatized by either their abuser or the criminal justice system.

I ask that you join me in sponsoring this very important legislation, which is supported by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Please contact Veronica Miller in my office with any questions.

Introduced as SB877