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Reasonable Doubt & The Word of a Police Officer

This post is going to be hard to understand if you are a black-and-white thinker. In fact, it’s so difficult for many who visit this blog to understand that I’m going to start with the disclaimer that I often use when discussing police officers and honesty:

Not all police officers are bad. Not all police officers lie. Not all police officers plant weapons, drugs, or other evidence. Not all police officers ignore the rights of citizens. Not all police officers “bend,” or ignore, our laws. Not all police officers will give someone a tune-up for speaking their mind.

Police officers are human beings. Admittedly, there is a police culture that has shifted in a way that lying and planting drugs and ignoring rights and laws has become common. But because police officers have to be selected from the same species as the rest of humanity, there will always be officers who honestly try to do the best jobs they can possibly do, in the most ethical and law-abiding way.

The problem, of course, is that these days you just can’t tell, by looking at a particular law enforcement officer, whether a particular law enforcement officer is one of those who is being honest, or whether he is one who will lie (especially in court), or plant evidence, or ignore rights, or follow the law.

Therein lies the problem.

I know I say some nasty stuff about police officers. It may surprise you to know that I didn’t always talk like this, or think the way I do. Over the years since I became an attorney, however, I’ve come to know that every one of the things I talked about above happens on a regular basis.

Some police officers lie.

Some police officers plant evidence.

Some police officers ignore rights.

Some police officers will not follow the law.

Sometimes they don’t follow the law because they don’t know it. You can’t totally fault them for that. Our laws today are so complex that even lawyers have a hard time sorting it out. The real problem here, though, is that sometimes police officers don’t follow the law simply because they don’t want to follow it.

Prosecutors won’t charge cops, even for the same things for which they’d charge you, since they’re all “on the same team.” Our courts — supposedly the last guardians we have against the abuse of the executive branch of government to which prosecutors and the police belong — are oftencomplicit. Despite the large number of proven cases of police officers who essentially make a mockery of our laws, other parts of the government which should be policing the police refuse to do so.

And make no mistake, these are not “one-off” incidents we’re talking about here. I tried to highlight that fact by the numerous links above. And it did not take me long to find those links. But these links only scratch the surface. One of the stories I linked above stated:

When Pérez was finally arrested, he implicated 70 other Rampart Division officers in various forms of misconduct, ranging from bad shootings to consuming alcohol while on duty.

That’s right, seventy. In one division of the police department. Those are just the ones Pérez implicated.

Another of the stories linked above — involving California police officers — begins with this opening sentence:

A Huntington Beach police officer’s exoneration for planting a loaded gun in a suspect’s car has led to the revelation that police routinely plant evidence in unsuspecting civilians’ vehicles for training exercises. (Emphasis added.)

Now, you might want to hone in on this story and say, “well, that’s a good story to pick there, Mr. Rick, because it clearly shows that the police aren’t planting evidence to get people convicted.”

I have two replies to that. First, bull: look at the other stories I linked above. (And if I wanted to spend the time on it, I could probably find enough stories of separate criminal acts by police officers to add one link for every word in this blog article.) There was nothing about them that suggested training. In fact, the evidence was planted in order to frame or convict someone for crimes they did not commit. This story just goes to show how easy it is to plant evidence in the first place.

And here’s my second reply, which actually comes from the same article about Huntington Beach:

News of the training technique sparked surprise and criticism from police officials across the county, who said planting weapons in civilian vehicles is “inappropriate” and a “bad idea.”

“I’ve never heard of anybody doing that,” said George Wright, chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at Santa Ana College. “You’re using someone else’s property, and that can lead to other problems. … What if someone forgets about the gun and just leaves it behind?”

Police in Las Vegas abandoned a similar training tactic for drug-sniffing police dogs last year, when a man was falsely charged with drug possession after a canine officer forgot to retrieve drugs planted in the man’s car, according to published reports.

Imagine your doctor training medical students by leaving a forceps inside a patient during surgery. Think about the ramifications.

Done? Good. Still think that it’s okay if it’s “for training purposes”? Did you also stop to think about the fact that, in order to accept even this, you had to trust that the police department that said they regularly did this “for training purposes” was telling you the truth? And not just covering up for getting caught planting evidence?

All this — and particularly the widespread institutionalized endorsement of these acts and the corruption we know about[1] — just reinforces why juries should be very, very careful about convicting people based only upon the say-so of police officers. How’d that weapon, or those drugs, wind up in the car of the defendant who swears he did not know about it? Was it planted as part of some “training exercise”? Or deliberately?

And for the courts, refusing to suppress evidence because the officer testified that the defendant consented to have his home searched, where 500 lbs of marijuana was found, some of it sitting in plain view?[2] Do you reallybelieve that someone will consent to a search under such circumstances?

The bottom line is this: these days, law enforcement fudges or crosses the line so often that if the only other evidence you have is the word of the police officer, no one will ever know. Certainly no one will ever know “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

It’s time to stop that. It’s time to hold police to a higher standard than that to which we hold criminals. It’s time to stop convicting people just on the say-so of the police.

  1. That it is widespread is born out by the foreword to Tim Prenzler’s book, Police Corruption: Preventing Misconduct and Maintaining Integrity, which states “Policing, it seems, is prone to the same potential problems of corruption and misconduct everywhere in the world.” p. xv. Prenzler’s book goes on to detail just how. [↩]
  2. I was actually involved in a case once where that was part of the fact pattern. [↩]