Recently, the New York Times Opinion Pages posted an article titled, “Why Police Lie Under Oath”. Police lying under oath is both surprising and dangerous.
While the New York Times Article discusses the issue regarding drug cases, which is particularly current in light of the Massachusetts drug lab scandal, police deception also can occur in other types of cases, such as drunk driving arrests. In a Massachusetts OUI arrest, a police officer lying could take one of two forms; a complete fabrication of what occurred or an embellishment, adding a few details in the report that cannot be verified, that someone appeared unsteady or had trouble with balance getting out of the car. Both types of fabrication undermine the integrity of police officers and it is the job of the defense attorney to point out these fabrications to the jury.
Typically, many people often equate the word “defendant” with “guilty” by the mere notion that a defendant is charged with allegedly violating the law, something for which they need to defend. Likewise, we view and trust our law enforcement officers to serve and protect-to uphold their oaths of fairness and justice. In a court setting, it is not unreasonable to suspect that a jury and a judge will take the side of the uniformed officer under oath vs. the defendant allegedly accused of a violation of law. This is what makes police lying so dangerous. One lie can ruin a life. So, why would a law enforcement officer lie?
The New York Times article suggests that lying has a financial incentive for police. Often, police departments are rewarded for their number of stops, searches, and arrests. The more arrests, the more grant money is awarded to their departments-even when these arrests lack sufficient evidence. For example, according to the NYT article, federal grant programs such as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Grant Program encourages law enforcement to boosts drug arrests as they compete for millions of dollars in funding. Additionally, police are often pressured to boost arrests for basic productivity and quota systems at their departments.
In 2011, Brian D. Fitch, PhD, Lieutenant, Los Angeles, California, Sheriff’s Department, wrote an article titled “Understanding the Psychology of Police Misconduct” in which he explored why police lie. Mr. Fitch offers more insight, far beyond the federal grant money incentives. He demonstrates a broken system, where officers lie for several psychological reasons including:
1. Victims of Circumstance: Due to peer pressure or unethical supervision, they engage in misconduct.
2. Higher Cause: They break the rules due to a higher calling. In their eyes, what’s wrong with one lie if they are taking a felon off the streets?
3. Blaming the Victim: The view that the defefndent “got what they deserved” because they broke the law in the first place.
Just as there is police pressure to make drug arrests, Massachusetts OUI lawyers face officers testifying in court as to the number of OUI arrests they have made; Mother’s Against Drunk Driving has awards for officers who make high numbers of OUI arrests. While it is difficult for a defendant to receive a fair trial when a police officer lies, it is crucial that defense lawyers point out an officers demeanor, level of detail in the police report and any inconsistent statements in order to undermine the credibility of the officer. While it would be rare to say during trial that the officer is lying, it is common strategy to suggest that the report exaggerates, overstates and distorts what occurred to serve the officer’s goal of justifying the arrest and proving the case in court.