Here you are going about your day and suddenly find yourself inside a crime scene, witness to a crime. That can be as scary as being the victim of the crime. You may not be in control of the events around you, but you can play a powerful role in what happens after the fact.
What you see and hear is extremely important. Because you are a third party observer, you can help police and investigators understand what may have actually happened. Your witness statement is often vital to the outcome. You help everyone, starting with the victim and the police on the scene, through to the lawyers on both sides of the aisle in court.
It is far more likely you will witness some kind of a nonviolent crime than a violent one. But if you do find yourself at or near the scene of a violent crime in process, do whatever it takes to get out of harm’s way. First and foremost get to a safe place and protect yourself. If you can do so and stay near the scene, you can help police by noting details about what you see and hear.
One of the most important things you can do is note the location. The more specific you can be, the better. Mobile phones are helpful because they give 911 operators general GPS coordinates, but GPS provides information only within 300 feet or so in any direction. Having an address, cross street, business name, or even some landmark means police can get to the scene faster. If you use a landline, dispatchers will have the address from which you are making the call, but that may or may not be the location of the crime in progress. Location is key. Try to notice the time, if possible.
Tell the dispatcher clearly what is happening, then let the dispatcher control the call. They will try to keep you on the phone and will ask you lots of questions. They aren’t wasting time by doing this. Your answers help officers know what they will be dealing with when they arrive. Operators are updating police in route to the scene. The more information they can gather now, the more likely police can prevent injury, protect property, or catch the suspect quickly.
Try to notice as many details as possible: what people look like, gender, hair and skin color, what they are wearing, what are they doing, what direction they left, any distinguishing traits (a limp, a tattoo, hairstyle, etc.), what they might be carrying – or a vehicle make, model or license number.
Use your mobile phone to take pictures, record audio, or capture video, if possible. But don’t do this instead of calling the police or keeping yourself safe.
These details are extremely important in arresting a suspect as well as in the investigation that will follow.
Of course you should help anyone who is injured or in danger immediately. But don’t touch or move anything at the scene, if at all possible. You could unintentionally be altering or destroying evidence that will be needed by investigators and lawyers later.
You want to leave and get out of there, back to reality. But wait for the police to arrive if you can. You may need to direct them to the exact location of the crime, and they will need your answers to a lot of questions. The questions may seem off the wall, repetitive, or even personal, but your answers are important. Answer questions to what you know and what you saw, not what you think might have happened or are guessing about. Just the facts, ma’am.
Yes, you want to leave and just go home. But take the time to be sure the police report of your account is accurate and exactly what you told them, and that nothing has been misstated in their report. This is a crucial piece of evidence, and if you find yourself testifying in court as a witness you will be asked about this very report as if it is your very own.
The investigation starts at the crime scene, but the bulk of it takes place after a suspect has been arrested and charged. You may be contacted after the fact by investigators or attorneys. If you remember something after the fact, call police and tell them. You may be asked or subpoenaed to testify in court. Show up. Help the process work. Justice depends on the witnesses of the crime. Without it, people who committed crimes can walk free, or someone who didn’t do it can be sent to prison.
You are entitled by the California labor laws to receive compensation for the days you are in court giving witness testimony, attending a deposition (lawyer-conducted witness interview), and for some travel expenses. The witness fee for state crimes is $35 a day plus $.20 per mile. For federal crimes the fee is $40 per day and the standard mileage fee set by the IRS. You may be entitled to other expense reimbursement through the California Victim Compensation Program or the Orange County Witness Assistance Center.
Jeremy N. Goldman is a certified specialist in criminal law by the California State Bar of Legal Specialization. He has practiced criminal law defense in Orange County for more than 20 years. Jeremy N. Goldman is available to consult with you at no charge on any criminal matter. Contact our law offices at (800) 349-1619 today or email us confidentially online here.
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