Who Would You Believe: the Criminal in the Orange Jumpsuit or the Well-Groomed Police Officers Who Just Swore To God To Tell The Truth?

On Sunday, February 2, the New York Times published an article written by Michelle Alexander entitled, “Why Police Lie Under Oath”.

Alexander highlights the incentives police officers have to lie, namely in drug cases. Drug cases are especially susceptible to police misconduct because many of them rely so heavily on the legality of the initial stop and arrest. In order to legally stop, search, and arrest a suspect, police officers must have probable cause and in some cases, a “reasonable suspicion” may be enough. Without a warrant providing the officer with firm authority to seize or search an individual (or their residence, car, etc), police rely on their own perceptions and suspicions.

More often than not, it is a police officer’s word against a defendant’s when it comes down to pre-trial hearings and trials. This is not only true in drug cases but is also common in many types of criminal cases and investigations. Police officers have an incentive to find the perpetrator…and fast. In the past, this mentality has led to a number of men and women being falsely accused of crimes they did not commit, often spending years of their lives in prison. (For more information on the Chicago Police Department’s history of abuses and lies, see the report recently released by 60 minutes). Why? Because who would you believe? The criminal in the orange jumpsuit or the nice-looking officers swearing to tell the whole truth, and nothing but?

As criminal defense attorneys, we must be prepared to defend against false testimony by police officers. To do so, we believe it is imperative to conduct a full investigation of the police and investigative work done on each case brought to our office. Defense investigations done properly often reveal important facts and/or clues not listed in the police reports or investigation narratives as originally provided. These missing facts may help in proving a client’s innocence or in some cases, the motives behind an officer’s lies.

Michelle Alexander is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”