There was an interesting piece in the New York Times, recently, with the provocative title Why Police Lie Under Oath. You’ll notice that the title contains a very unflattering assumption: no one asks why pigs fly, after all. But if you practice law for any length of time you’ll encounter things that seem to confirm the underlying premise of the article.
One of our clients was charged with driving while ability impaired by drugs. This surprised both him and his family, because there was nothing in his system that could have impaired his driving – a fact later confirmed by both a private lab and by the State Police.
Before his arrest, our client had been given a battery of field sobriety tests. He had passed all of them, according to the bill of particulars and supporting deposition issued by the arresting officer. This didn’t surprise our client or his family. He was an excellent snowboarder, as it happened. And frankly, if an athletic person couldn’t pass the tests completely sober, that would throw the tests themselves into question.
Unfortunately, the fact that he had passed the tests tended to throw the arrest into question. So by the time our client showed up for arraignment, the officer had sent the court a note. When he had said ‘passed’, the note advised, he had really meant ‘failed’.
The charge was ultimately dismissed at the prosecutor’s request.
In another case, a police officer was on the witness stand. He was a large, muscular guy, with an open, candid face. A particular cassette tape was not available as evidence because, he claimed, it had ‘broken’. When asked how it had come to break, he smiled disarmingly and admitted, with some embarrassment, that he didn’t know.
Fair enough, you might have thought, if you hadn’t noticed his hands. Big, broad, ham-like hands. The hands clearly hadn’t heard what his face was saying, because they were telling the jury something completely different – demonstrating in pantomime how to twist the plastic housing of a cassette until it snaps.
Why would officers lie? The Times piece gives a few reasons. Often, whether police departments admit it or not, an individual officer’s effectiveness is measured by the number of arrests he makes. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the department itself may be measured, for funding purposes, by the number of arrests it makes.
And then, of course, there’s the first reason listed in the article for why officers lie, and it’s the most troubling of all: They lie because they can.