Friday, September 7, 2007

Oregon's "Homeless" Witness Program

In Medford, Oregon, a state court judge incarcerated three homeless people to secure their attendance as witnesses in a homicide case. Using Oregon's material witness statutes, the judge held the three in custody for over two months.

Despite the fact that two of the homeless folks lived in the community, promised to comply with all subpoenas, and had no history of intentionally failing to appear in court, the judge held that they should be kept in jail indefinitely pending the defendant's trial. At no point were the homeless people charged with committing any crime themselves; they were held solely as witnesses.

The judge based his decision, in part, on his finding that the homeless people "were not forthcoming" with police and did not immediately run to the police with the information that a potential crime had been committed. The judge's reasoning was maddening to homeless advocates who note that some police officers' threatening and harassing behavior toward homeless people instills a sense of distrust of the police in many homeless people. On the whole, it seemed clear that the judge focused on the witnesses' homeless status - or, rather, the inevitable consequences of being homeless - to render his decision.

The homeless witnesses' court-appointed criminal defense attorneys fought extremely hard to win their clients' release. A number of hearings were held, to no avail. The attorneys, with the help of WRAP's legal counsel, filed a Motion to Reconsider, which outlined the constitutional flaws in Oregon's material witness law and the process by which the witnesses were arrested and held. The judge denied the motion but the matters will be pursued on appeal.

In the end, the attorneys were able to arrange a release plan that the judge accepted. The homeless witnesses were released last week. Also, last week, it was reported that another homeless man in Medford was incarcerated on a material witness warrant in another criminal case.

Through its work on this case, WRAP has discovered other instances across the nation of homeless people being held indefinitely as material witnesses. It appears to be "enemy-combatant"-type treatment, writ small, with little or questionable due process and indefinite incarceration without charge. WRAP will continue to monitor and contest this unconstitutional and inhumane treatment of homeless people.

Related Articles:
Homeless man who witnessed murder under house arrest: PA
- A homeless man who witnessed a murder was jailed and placed in a house arrest program, despite not committing a crime, to ensure his safety and participation in court proceedings, officials said.

Judge says homeless witnesses must stay in jail: OR
- Three homeless people who saw a fatal fight at an encampment must remain in jail until the case is tried, a judge has ruled.
The three have been held for 10 weeks as material witnesses, getting $7.50 a day in compensation. A trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 25.

Ala. Woman, 81, shoots homeless 'washer'
-Getting charged for first degree "laundry"

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