Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Prosecuting the Protectors

Every case is important, whether it is drugs in a car or a homicide of an elderly victim. They all have some bearing on the world and an effect on individuals and society. But some cases are more motivating than others. I am currently handling a case where a defendant committed two nasty home invasions of elderly victims where he stomped them into unconsciousness. The theme, opening, and closing write themselves in those cases.

Cop cases rarely fall into the easily motivated category due to the ramifications that come with the investigation.

Polie officers get investigated for all sorts of crimes - embezzlement, fraud, robbery, perjury, and other theft crimes. But most cases come in two varieties –DWI and excessive force.

The DWI cases usually come after an accident. An officer crashes into someone after a night of drinking and seriously injures the person. The result – career over, huge lawsuit, and the cop’s name sprayed across the papers until the case is resolved. Most police officers understand these prosecutions. They don't like to see their friend in such a bind, but there is no blame on the prosecutor.

Police officers are the conduit through which prosecutions occur. They investigate the crimes and do all the heavy lifting. Prosecutors navigate the case through the court system while directing the investigation. When a prosecutor is tapped with a police officer investigation, the dynamic shifts. Word spreads quickly through the police fraternity that the ADA or AUSA is one who prosecutes cops. If the cops don’t agree with the prosecution of one of their brethren, we will see officers not appearing for conferences, avoiding ADAs, or trying to get their cases handled by other prosecutors. Needless to say, it becomes difficult to motivate officers to help an ADA who is prosecuting one of their own.

Let's discuss excessive force – did an officer exceed the scope of his duty in dealing with a suspect? Did he hit the handcuffed defendant? Was the defendant reaching for a gun when the officer shot? Did he shoot too many times? I am not on the street. The cops are the ones walking into enemy gang territory and pulling cars over with tinted windows crowded with five people at 4 in the morning. Every encounter with a suspect could prove fatal for an officer. I have no illusions that the life of a police officer is dangerous business.

Prosecutions for excessive force are like being a Monday morning quarterback. We have to judge the officer’s actions based on the facts we now know against what the officer knew at the time. Some are easy. The cop who cold cocks the handcuffed defendant is guilty of a civil rights violation. The gray areas are the difficult ones – the shooting of an unarmed suspect who was reaching into his waistband when the cop told him to put his hands up.

Either way, prosecuting cops creates a barrier between the prosecutor and police in other cases. What used to be a cordial and even friendly relationship can become purely business or non-existent. Officers can become hesitant to divulge too much information to the prosecutor for fear of it being used against them.

What's the effect on future prosecution's with the officer? Let's take a perjury case. An officer walks into the grand jury and says he collected bullets from a crime scene and submitted it to the lab. Days later, another officer tells the ADA the he was the one who did that and that the first officer had left the scene prior to the bullets being collected. When confronted with the information, the first officer admits he lied, but says he was just trying to help out and make it easy by not getting the second officer involved.

Even if that officer does not get charged with perjury, do we have to disclose that intentional lie on every case the officer is on again? Shouldn't the defendant and defense attorney know this officer was previously accused of fabricating testimony? We must prosecute police officers who violate the laws for the same reasons we prosecute citizens - to ensure that others abide by the laws society sets.

If there was no prosecutions, then there would be no clear line that officers should not cross.

Not all police officers react like this. Some understand that it is the nature of a prosecutor’s job to investigate crime and anyone that commits it. It is not an endemic problem in the police force, but an individual problem with individual officers. The majority of police officers are hard working men and women who never stop being a police officer whether they are on-duty or not. They are regular people put into an irregular job that is held to a higher standard than the rest of us. It is rarely gratifying to investigate and prosecute a police officer (I'm sure this one was gratifying). It's a job that must be done and as a prosecutor we swore to uphold all the laws and prosecute the offenders, no matter who they are.

But the reputation will always stick with the prosecutor.

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