Police Misconduct Leading to Wrongful Convictions
While most police officers are honest and ethical, there are also far too many who unfortunately commit misconduct when investigating crimes.
Detectives who lie when testifying, police officers who manufacture, destroy, or hide evidence, and law enforcement officials who improperly influence witness identifications and suspect confessions can result in wrongful convictions.
While it may seem like the deck is stacked against you when police misbehave, you do have constitutional rights and protections to assert.
Some officers' dishonesty stems from an attempt to cover up shoddy police work, a lack of willingness to do their jobs thoroughly and appropriately, or a simple desire to convict suspects who they believe are guilty. These police officers sometimes give testimony that is exaggerated, not entirely accurate, or just plain false.
Due to the respect and credibility that many community members give to law enforcement, it is easy to see how a police officer's false testimony can cause wrongful convictions.
As part of their job duties, police officers have the task of interrogating suspects, eliciting confessions, and interviewing witnesses to crimes.
During this process, officers may inadvertently or purposefully influence the statements of both witnesses and suspects. For instance, a police officer who believes a suspect to be guilty of a crime might place undue or inappropriate pressure on the suspect to confess to a crime they did not commit.
Likewise, a police officer who shows a photo array to a witness or administers a line-up might somehow suggest to the witness which person is the subject in question. Improper police tactics such as these can result in wrongful convictions, but this can be an appealable issue that might later exonerate the suspect.
Police alter, suppress, or make up evidence for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons could be to cover up a mistake or omission that they made during the initial investigation or to try to build a stronger case against a suspect that officers are convinced is guilty of a crime.
In any case, police misconduct with regard to evidence in a criminal case can be one cause of wrongful convictions.
Police officers are typically responsible for properly gathering, preserving, and documenting evidence that can later be used in criminal prosecution. While there is the potential for human error by police officers, there is also the potential for intentional misconduct.
Any action by an officer to conceal, destroy, falsify, or alter any evidence can be considered tampering with evidence.
For an officer to commit the crime of tampering with evidence, they need to have the intent to tamper with the evidence and tamper with an item, knowing that the item was evidence.
Law enforcement has the duty to preserve relevant evidence. That duty is enshrined in your constitutional protections including due process and the right to a fair trial. If a defendant can show that the police failed to preserve relevant evidence, they can ask the court to suppress the evidence or dismiss the case as a whole.
Generally, a police officer's testimony in court is considered to be credible. So, discrediting an officer won't be an easy task. In such cases, having a criminal defense attorney will be crucial.
Your attorney can try to discredit the officer using different methods, including:
- Reminding the judge and jury of an officer's inconsistent statements
- Asking detailed and specific questions about the incident
- Hiring experts to testify on your behalf
Any misbehavior by law enforcement officials or any evidence that negatively affects the police's credibility can constitute sufficient reasonable doubt.
In the end, like any other witness testimony, the jury will weigh the facts and decide whether the police officer's testimony is credible.
In some cases, police misconduct is not apparent to the jury, or the defense is unable to definitively prove during the trial that any misconduct occurred. However, that is not the end of the road when a wrongful conviction happens.
Fortunately, you are able to appeal a criminal conviction, which may result in overturning the verdict based on issues raised at trial. An appeals court reviewing your criminal conviction may determine that police misconduct occurred and that it violated your constitutional rights and affected your ability to have a fair trial. When that happens, the appeals court has the power to overturn the criminal conviction.
Police misconduct can lead to a wrongful conviction, but proving it can be difficult. That makes effective criminal defense representation critical. An experienced attorney will know what to look for to uncover any mishandling or tampering with evidence.