Most people do not think of lawyers as investigators. However, as a criminal defense attorney, if I am not investigating, I am not doing my job. For years, I have seen my clients in disbelief when they read police reports about what they did, even in cases where they admitted guilt, where the police just got so much information wrong. I can’t count how many times I have been asked how or why the police are allowed to lie like that. The answer of course is not simple, but it underscores the importance of finding a lawyer who will actually investigate your case. Defense attorneys or prosecutors who simply receive police reports and accept those reports as fact as laziness personified. I was happy to learn today that I have a reputation amongst the deputies at the San Luis Obispo County Jail as an attorney who is very thorough. This is important for a lot of reasons.
Why can the police lie? It is a fact that police officers do not always tell the truth. There are times when they are trained to lie, and there are times that they lie because they are human and imperfect, and there are times where they make mistakes but are trying to do the right thing. Understand that for the majority of cases, the police are honest and hardworking people trying to get the case right in the interests of justice. At the same time, if the police are interrogating you, not only are they legally allowed to lie to you in order to get you to confess to a crime, they are trained to do so. I have worked with law enforcement officers in training them on what to expect in the courtroom, and I always preach that just because they are legally permitted to lie to a suspect, doing so is often times a bad idea because juries hate hearing evidence about police officers lying. There is just something visceral about police officers having the authority and discretion to pick and choose when to tell the truth that juries rightfully find unappealing. There are certainly going to be bad apples that lie because they are not trustworthy. Like any group of people, there are going to be police officers that are just not trustworthy people, and their testimony should be tested through cross examination. Wearing a badge does not magically make you a truthful person. The vast majority of cases though are police officers who are doing their best to honestly serve the interests of justice. I will be the first to say anyone can make a mistake, and that includes police officers.
I recently worked on a Paso Robles case where a police officer threatened the key corroborating witness in the case. There were four attorneys on the case prior to me, and not one of them listened to the dashcam recordings of the interviews but instead relied upon the officer’s reports. When I listened to the dashcam instead of taking the reports at face value, I heard the witness give an account similar to my clients. Then, the police officer told the witness that he believed the victim of the case and unless she told the truth, he would charge her as a co-conspirator in the crime. She immediately changed her story to fit with what the victim claimed. This was summed up in the report as the police officer advising her to tell the truth and then her coming out with the additional information. For me, it appears to be a black and white issue of witness intimidation and coercion, though I know the prosecutor has a different view. But at the end of the day, I cannot say that the police officer acted with malice. Listening to the tape, he likely was just trying to get to the truth, but he did it the wrong way. To this day, I don’t know if he is aware of what he did. I am not willing to automatically believe the worst in people, if we go to trial, obviously my client enjoys the benefit of the doubt, and I will accuse him of all manner of wrongdoing, but personally I am not sure if this was intentional or not. I take the approach of fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, so I will obviously be keeping a close eye on future reports from that officer. The experience has two teaching points though, 1) Do not accept police reports at face value, and 2) Do not rush to judgment on matters of integrity. This police officer very well may have made an innocent mistake, or he may have done it intentionally. Without a pattern of behavior, there is likely no way I can prove either one. More importantly though, by doing the work and listening to the conversations myself, I was able to identify the issue and instead of my client going to prison for multiple years, he will now be released on probation.
I have always consistently earned my clients great offers. Great offers are not given because I am a nice guy, or because my client is nice or sympathetic. Great offers are earned through hard work and are given because they are dictated by the evidence. Lawyers who litigate from the police reports do their clients a disservice because they place too high an emphasis on police versions of events. No client wants to be in a position where you are in a credibility battle with a police officer, that is a battle you will often lose. However, through basic legal work, you can uncover inconsistencies and find a version of events closer to the truth. If you can work to change the police narrative then you never have to get into a credibility battle. It is a whole lot easier to sell to a jury that a police officer made a simple but honest mistake rather than trying to prove that they are a liar and out to get you. The only way you can do so though is to investigate on your own, and remember that police officers are people capable of the same mistakes that the rest of us make.
If you are facing criminal charges, make sure your lawyer does a thorough review of your case with you. There are cases where the police have all the evidence in the world against you, and some cases where the police get it wrong. Only a lawyer willing to do the work to uncover the truth can effectively represent you.