While there are many honest and ethical law enforcement officials in the United States justice system, there are also some law enforcement officials who unfortunately commit misconduct with regard to the crimes that they are investigating. Not only do these law enforcement officials adversely impact the credibility of other honest officials, but they can literally destroy the lives of persons who are wrongfully accused and even convicted of crimes. From detectives who do not testify truthfully, to police officers that manufacture, destroy, and/or hide evidence, and even law enforcement officials who have improperly influenced witness identifications and suspect confessions, there have been many instances where police misconduct has resulted in wrongful convictions.
Police Misconduct as a Basis for Appeals
The defense counsel’s role in a criminal case is to raise reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury. Any sort of misbehavior by law enforcement officials, or any evidence that negatively impacts the credibility of the evidence produced by police, can constitute sufficient reasonable doubt to result in a hung jury or an outright acquittal. In those cases, the justice system works as it should.
However, in other cases, police misconduct is not apparent to the jury, or the defense is unable to definitively prove during trial that any misconduct has occurred. These are the cases in which a person may be – and has been – wrongfully convicted of a crime. Fortunately, criminal convictions are subject to appellate review, which may result in police misconduct coming to light. If an appeals court reviewing a criminal conviction determines that police misconduct has occurred to the extent that it violated the defendant’s constitutional rights or impeded his or her ability to have a fair trial, or that the proffered evidence was insufficient to support the conviction, then the appeals court has the power to overturn the criminal conviction.
Police Giving False Testimony
While there are literally thousands of upstanding law enforcement officials, there are also some police officers who are less than honest. Whether their 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 whom they believe are guilty, police officers sometimes give testimony that is exaggerated, not fully accurate, and/or just plain fabricated. Due to the respect and credibility that many community members attribute to law enforcement officials, it is easy to see how a police officer’s false testimony could result in a wrongful conviction.
Police Improperly Handling Evidence
Law enforcement officials typically are the first responders to a crime, and thus are responsible for properly gathering, preserving, and documenting evidence that can later be used in a criminal prosecution of the crime’s perpetrator. Therefore, there is the potential not only for human error by police officers, but also for intentional misconduct. Police mishandle, suppress, doctor, or fabricate evidence for a variety of reasons. Some police officers might wish to cover up a mistake or omission that they made during the initial investigation. Other police officers are convinced that a certain suspect is guilty of a crime, and to choose to improperly manipulate the evidence in order to build a stronger case against that suspect. In any case, police misconduct with regard to evidence in a criminal case can result in wrongful convictions, and form a basis to overturn any convictions on appeal.
Police Coercing Witnesses and Suspects
As part of their job duties, law enforcement officials have the task of interrogating witnesses, eliciting confessions, and interviewing witnesses to crimes. During this process, police 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 that he or she 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 not only result in wrongful convictions, but also can be an appealable issue that might later exonerate the suspect.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.