It is one of law enforcement’s most expansive powers: If the authorities believe that someone has knowledge of a crime, they can — under threat of arrest — force the person to testify in court by obtaining what is known as a material witness warrant.
Unlike normal subpoenas, many, if not most, of which are issued to those directly involved in criminal proceedings, material witness warrants are typically handed out to people who are not under suspicion and are merely in possession of information that the police or prosecutors want.
While the warrants are ostensibly meant to seek the truth and quicken the search for justice, court papers recently filed in a federal lawsuit claim that the Queens district attorney’s office misused a warrant while pursuing a prosecution — a practice that, according to the papers, prosecutors in both Brooklyn and Manhattan have also engaged in occasionally in the last several years.
A sort of legal fail-safe, material witness warrants, which must be signed by judges, are designed to be used in extraordinary circumstances — say, when prosecutors are concerned that a witness might flee or resists taking the stand. Strict rules govern their use: material witnesses can be arrested on a warrant only if they first ignore an order to appear in court, and those detained are required to be presented to a judge and provided with a lawyer. Hearings are supposed to be held to determine what these witnesses know and why they are reluctant to reveal it.
But the court papers say that does not always happen and that the mishandling of the warrants has led to dire consequences for the witnesses themselves, some of whom have been unlawfully held in custody for having done no more than attracted the attention of investigators. The court papers also claim that the misuse of the warrants has harmed defendants, as witnesses compelled by them to testify have at times been coerced into offering false accounts in court.