We all know the feeling. You catch the bad guy, book all of your evidence, and put together a great case. Now you're in court, sitting on the stand answering the district attorney's questions when he or she finally says, "no further questions." The judge looks over at the defense attorney and says, "Defense, cross examine." The defense attorney looks at you and smiles, and you hope your case is as airtight as you think it is.
Sound familiar? If you've ever been in this situation and been "shredded" by a defense attorney, you know the importance of thinking pro-actively when it comes to defending your case. Unfortunately, this needs to be done at the crime scene and immediately thereafter, or most of your best chances will be gone.
With this in mind, let's take a look at three of the defense's best tactics for getting a client to walk free. Thinking of these arguments during your case will help you shut the vacuum seal on your bad guy and get successful prosecution.
The Question of Standing
We all know one of the first things we check when conducting a residence or vehicle search is if the suspect has any legal connection to that item. "Standing" is just legalese for that process. The term can mean other things as well, but for the purpose of this article, we'll concentrate on its most common definition.
The most common mistake officers make in relation to standing is not documenting enough of it. Almost all officers know they have the legal standing to conduct a search prior to doing it (let's hope!), but then quickly forget to record proof of that for a later date. The defense will almost always attack this point if the officer hasn't shown he or she has enough proof to connect the suspect with the crime.
This is also a good time to review the very important topic of collecting and/or documenting indicia. Simply put, indicia are items that prove your suspect lives at the place you're searching. The perfect example of this is mail addressed to your suspect with the address printed on it. Utility bills are one of the better forms of this, as everyone needs to pay the electrical bill (or at least get a bill). Besides mail, other items such as documents, prescriptions, and photographs can serve the same purpose.
The overall goal of collecting indicia is to show a nexus between your suspect and the house or property you are searching. It is one of the first things the defense counsel will attack, trying to show his or her client was "just visiting" when the big bad cops kicked in the door. Be sure you have plenty of indicia and other ways of proving your suspect was truly in his castle when you stopped by to say hello.
Clothing and Personal Property
What was the suspect wearing when you arrested him? Did you arrest your burglar at night while he was wearing a black jacket, black pants, black gloves, and a black hat carrying a crowbar standing next to a pried-open door? Think this would be an important point to bring up in court?
Most of us would clue the district attorney into this little fact. However, if you don't document it and take photos of it, you will get attacked (possibly successfully) by the defense. Even if the judge believes you as an officer, the defense can (and will) bring up this little zinger, "Why didn't you think this was important enough to photograph or document, Officer?" The defense will likely follow that one up with this hook, "If you forgot this important fact, what else did you fail to document in your 'complete' report, Officer?"
Lawyers love to make officers squirm by using these arguments, so be ready for them by documenting and photographing the exact way you found your suspect: clothes, property, and all. Also make sure you document where you found your suspect and the condition of the area. Was your suspect standing in a nice well-lit street corner waiting to cross the street, or was he crouched behind bushes in a darkened alley? Remember, if you don't put it in your report, it didn't happen.
Whether they are witness, victim, or suspect statements, what people tell you is of vital importance to your case. How you document these statements is even more important.
When it comes to statements, the best evidence will always be a recording of the person speaking. However, we can't always record everyone, so there are other options. If they are willing, have them write out a statement. Then, read over their statement and ask any questions you need to, documenting the questions and quoted answers at the bottom of the statement. After you have covered all the bases, have them sign their statement under your questions. This will counter the "you wrote this after they were finished" argument. Their signature locks them into those questions as well, just like a signed contract locks a buyer into a purchase.
While we are on the topic of statements, remember the elements of your crime when questioning suspects, witnesses, or victims. Be sure you cover all of the elements that will qualify the crime you are charging. Be sure to ask witnesses and victims about any history with the suspect that may be important. Is there an ongoing problem with that individual, or was this a random act?
Is your suspect lying to you? That can be just as good as an admission at times. Be sure to let him, but ask as many detailed questions as possible. This locks your suspect into his lie, and when he begins making up a flurry of details in rapid succession, he's bound to trip up somewhere. Be sure to ask about things you can check on later, so you can cut through the lie in court. Again, record these statements well.
Taking a proactive approach to defense arguments will help you successfully prosecute many more cases. Plus, it will get you to the best part of cross examinations faster, the part where the defense attorney says, "No further questions."