Next to federally mandated training, court might be at the bottom of most cops’ popularity list. If you want to be good at it, though, it can actually be something you look forward to.
Few of us really enjoy going to court. Let’s face it, the phrase “going to court” usually includes depositions and pre-trial conferences as well as trials. Nasty defense attorneys, reluctant prosecutors, and a lot of time spent waiting—often to be told to go home and come back tomorrow—make the entire court experience one that we have learned to despise.
There is much you can’t change about court. First and foremost is that you will always have to do it, so you might as well make the best of it. The other things you can’t change are the attitudes and perspectives of others (like attorneys, judges, and juries) so simplify the whole thing and focus it on yourself.
If we can be thoroughly prepared on our cases, professional in appearance, and unshakable in our presence in a courtroom, then we’ve done our job and we can feel good about our role. The others—juries included—have to live what they did or did not do.
What makes our role in court so important? As law enforcement, we are professional witnesses. More than anyone who steps up to tell the story of what happened, we are expected to do so with clarity and believability. You could be the lead in a complex homicide case or you could be a uniform officer who did one small thing, but this is for certain: All eyes are on you when you take that witness stand.
And all the eyes that really matter are those of the civilians in the jury box. They are not only making a judgment about the case you are testifying in. They are also formulating an opinion about you as a law enforcement officer and about your department. That opinion is likely to carry over to the next police witness and how the jurors might feel about him or her.
This era, like no other, is the age of TV police dramas. “CSI: Miami,” “Cold Case,” “Law and Order,” and all the others, have consistently dominated the ratings. Many citizens watch some of the fantasy that goes on during “CSI: Miami” and they believe that we all have technology like that at our fingertips. If only it were so, right?
So jurors come into their roles as triers of fact with certain predisposed ideas of what law enforcement is and what we can accomplish. Because of this, and because of the readiness of information on the Internet, it is probably much tougher now than it was 20 years ago to win a major case in court. To show today’s jurors the reality of your job, you must know your job and your case and be convincing about it.
Scene and Suspect
Court testimony starts at the crime scene. The integrity of the crime scene cannot be downplayed. Remember, it is the only aspect of the investigation that cannot be revisited in its three-dimensional form once we’ve left it. When you’re on a major scene, take steps to ensure good fundamentals of crime scene integrity.
For example, if there is a question of how much to rope off, always go for bigger rather than smaller. You can always contract, but you can’t expand. Remember, too, the textbook rules—no eating, smoking, or drinking on the scene, and no unauthorized persons.
If someone wants to go under that yellow tape, let them enter only if they have a job to do there. Curious onlookers—and we cops can be the worst—should be kept out, regardless of rank. Document every person who goes in and at what time. If possible, one entry point is best.
The word “document” is worth repeating here. Again, more is better, because you won’t get grilled for noting too much, but you will get embarrassed if you pass something over and it turns out to be of even minor importance. Don’t forget this concept: If we get sloppy or lazy and miss something, the defense will capitalize on it and make it a huge issue. The defense attorney will try to convince the jury that because of this one screw-up, we have probably neglected other things in the investigation, too.
Perhaps the most critical of court-related issues centers around dealing with suspects, their actions, their statements, and their status. This often happens early on in the investigation. Documentation of each contact with a suspect needs to be detailed, right down to the times you met and what the suspect was wearing. More important than all these things put together, however, is whether the suspect was in custody or not during the interview.
A sound understanding of Miranda is essential for every criminal investigator. Where court is concerned, your grasp of Miranda and your ability to express whether your subject was “free to leave” or not will either make you an impressive winner or a humiliated hack in the eyes of a judge or jury. If you have never testified in a “motion to suppress” hearing, you could be in for a real treat. Defense attorneys have much more leeway—since the jury is not present—and they will try to exploit whatever weaknesses, contradictions, or inconsistencies they can find to have the evidence or testimony thrown out. Again: document, document, document.