"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Do Cops Lie on the Stand?

Answer: Some do, sometimes, just like every other witness.

Which is why this NY Times op/ed is so yawn-worthy. The Times asks, "As a juror, whom are you likely to believe: the alleged criminal in an orange jumpsuit or two well-groomed police officers in uniforms who just swore to God they’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but?" and then goes on to the gratuitous assertion that officers have an incentive to lie because departments stand to receive lots of grant money based on arrest data.

 What the author does not show is any actual evidence linking such grants to upward pressure for arrests, much less whether such pressure actually filters down to the level of the average cop on the beat. She also does not tell us if the grants award arrests or convictions. If arrests, there is no incentive to lie in court, since conviction rates would not affect police receiving the grants. Then, after gratuitously mentioning these grants as reasons why police lie, she lists several instances in New York City of police being caught lying, but in cases clearly having nothing to do with grant funding.

 Her intellectual method seems to be to throw lots of mud and see what sticks.

 No, the reality is that the average cop has little to no awareness of "meta-issues" like grant funding for their departments. The average cop who will lie on the stand is lying to protect his arrest. These officers are typically the ones who are very zealous, somewhat narrow-minded, very difficult to train out of habits they're convinced are the only right way to do the job; and whose ego is evidently so wrapped up in their work that they perceive losing a case as a personal affront to their worth as a police officer. Prosecutors and defense counsel have seen this type of officer. Fortunately, they are not typical, and most officers are truthful: note--not robots who can flawlessly recount events which happened months ago. A clever defense attorney will typically ask about minor details of these events specifically to illustrate to a judge or jury that the officer does not possess a universally complete or infallible memory.

 The advent of video technology in the public domain, in patrol cars and in drug buy cases has tended to reinforce the instinct to truthfulness of this vast majority of officers.

 I don't know about New York State, but in Virginia juries are rightly instructed that witnesses are witnesses, and a police officer is not entitled to some presumptive "extra" credibility as a witness. The fact remains, however, that in a swearing match situation between a criminal defendant, often impeached the moment he takes the stand by a record of felonies and what we quaintly call in Virginia "crimes of moral turpitude" (i.e., lying, cheating, or stealing) and a police officer who has no inherent credibility problem, the officer will usually be the more believable witness. Yet even then, every trial attorney can relate a situation where a criminal defendant has won the swearing contest for whatever reason.

 So please, NY Times: there is no crisis of police lying, and every jury and judge in the country understands that some officers sometimes lie (or more commonly, omit some fact favorable to the defense). Until we repeal the doctrine of Original Sin, we will have an imperfect system that relies on witness testimony.

 Take a deep breath and get over it.

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