The Boston Criminal Law Blog has had a fairly police-intensive week this week. We began with
A police chase in which an officer accidently struck and killed a pedestrian (which, if we had done it would probably be treated as a homicide) and then with of law enforcement investigations and actions in cases of murder, vandalism, armed robbery and, “worst of all”, the “scourge” of prostitution.
And yet, critical as I may be, I claim to have a great deal of respect for police officers. Well, most of them, anyway.
And I do. I am not “anti-cop”.
True, my work tends to place me at the other side of the aisle from them in a courtroom. And yet, often, they are not my client’s enemy. It is often someone else who has made a certain report to the police which led to my client’s arrest.
“But Sam, you are always telling us how they lie during police investigations to get the unwitting to make statements.”
And so they do. From their viewpoint, that is simply good police work. From my professional viewpoint, it is a hazard that client’s, or, rather, clients-to-be, fall into. It’s not a value judgment on my part.
What about when they lie on the stand?
That’s a different story.
As you may recall, I was a prosecutor in Brooklyn, NY, about a million years ago. As a prosecutor, I was on the same side as the police officers in court.
Sometimes, it was kind of hard to ignore that some officers would have a volatile relationship with the truth. Of course, as an assistant district attorney, police officers knew better than to come to me and say, “Ok, I would like to lie about that particular question. The truth might be a tad embarrassing.”
However, I would have officers respond to my questions as to how an arrest or search took place with, “Which would be better?”
Police officers, like attorneys, judges, witnesses and defendants, are human beings. They make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes are conscious, sometimes purely accidental. In my experience, though, they usually simply try their best like the rest of us.
Much of my criticism about law enforcement is not really meant to point at the typical police officer. At least, not this week.
I have a greater problem with those who mandate police action to suit political aims. You see, I believe that the issues underlying the whole criminal justice system are among the most important to human life and society (in this country, anyway) around. I know there are others, and we live in a time of environmental upheaval, health hazards and wars that should and should not take place…I am concerned about them as well. But, I have to recognize that they are out of my area of expertise.
The criminal justice system, however, is not.
I wrote a book once about some of my experiences as an assistant district attorney in New York. It’s not published (yet – although, I am still entertaining offers out there, by the way). It had to do with the period of time that I served under at the pleasure of Ms. Elizabeth Holtzman. She was someone whom I had admired greatly in her past positions in political life. However, it soon became apparent that she knew and understood very little about the criminal justice system.
Yet, she was the District Attorney of the county.
It was then that I began to learn how the fear of publicity guided a great deal of the criminal justice system. And then, as the system became more and more overloaded, I came home to the Boston area and began to see the reality from the other side of the aisle.
It was even worse.
District Attorneys and Attorneys General are political positions. First and foremost. As you already know, legislatures, by definition, are political positions. They write the laws. The upper brass at a police department answer to the press and prosecutors. Some of their positions are also political, such as the case of a sheriff.
Basically, a police officer’s job is to make the arrests for which he/she feels there is ample probable cause, investigate crime and try to keep the peace. They also have to follow the directives of their bosses…like most of us.
We often hear an officer say, “Look, I do not make the laws, I just enforce them”.
Not only that, but they must answer to the prosecutors, who’s first responsibility is supposed to be to “do justice“. This admonition has taken on a rather limited one-sided meaning these days.
It has come to mean, “Do Convictions. Make sure you do not seem soft on crime.”
When, because of police action, the criminal justice system more resembles a criminal justice circus, we blame the officer on the street or on the stand. Quite often, we should be looking up the law enforcement food chain.
Examples? How about a District Attorney who, in an effort to look heroic, needlessly indicts a bunch of kids, thus ruining their lives, although no real felonious conduct occurred that caused the death she is blaming on them? How about when, after the dust settles, and such is revealed to be the case, takes absolutely no step to rectify the situation?
Not enough? How about law makers who spend a great deal of time and money doing a rush job in creating an anti-bullying bill that does next to nothing (except create “No Name Calling Day” in January), thus placating the populous that the problem is being solved? How about when they have the unmitigated gall to pronounce it to be the “strongest” such law in the land?
So….this is the criminal justice system, at least that can be fit into one posting, as it exists from the side of the prosecution, folks. Do other problems exist? Sure.
Are defense attorneys absolutely blameless?
Nobody is blameless.
In the meantime, though, unless and until we solve such issues, one has to live. If you would like to have the best chance of doing so on the outside, as opposed to the inside of involuntary Commonwealth housing, remember that such issues exist.
These issues make it even more important that you level the playing field as much as possible. In other words…you guessed it…get an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as you so much as sniff an upcoming investigation or arrest.
If you are interested in discussing such a matter with me, feel free to make an appointment for a free initial consultation by calling 617-492-3000.
In the meantime, have a great, safe and law-abiding weekend!