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On Making Life Easier for Police Officers

Jamison KoehlerCriminal Procedure

Of all the tricks used by police officers, one of the most devious – yet harmless – tricks I have heard is the ploy they use to take a DWI suspect into custody after deciding to make the arrest. The purpose of this particular trick is not to improve detection techniques or to get a reluctant suspect to confess. It is intended instead to make life easier for the police officer.

A person suspected of driving while intoxicated is instructed to perform a long series of unfamiliar maneuvers:  following a pen with the person’s eyes, standing on one leg while counting to 30, walking heel-to-toe for seven steps and turning, and so on. According to this trick, a suspect who has failed the field sobriety tests or shown other signs of intoxication is then instructed to lean over the hood of the car with his arms out straight behind him — only to find a pair of handcuffs slapped onto his wrists.

Because, after all, a big part of police procedure taught at the Academy is to simplify things for the officer.

Recognizing that happy and secure suspects make cooperative suspects, another trick used by officers is to provide all sorts of reassurances to the suspect:  Don’t worry. We just need to clear up a few things down at the station. This is not a serious charge.  Just a few minutes and you’ll be on your way.

The person is then surprised, upon arriving at the station, to be put into a holding cell with the formerly friendly police officer nowhere to be found. What happened to these few matters we just need to settle?  A few minutes turns into many hours or a night in custody.  The promises that “this will all be thrown out” disappear.

This creates a number of misperceptions on the part of the person charged with the offense that criminal defense attorneys are left to deal with. For example, people who have been assured that the charges will be thrown out tend to cling onto this very hope, sometimes all the way to trial.  But the police officer said this was no big deal!  He said he was sure it was going to be thrown out!  It must be because he doesn’t believe in the strength of the evidence against me!  They also tend to think that the police officer who was so friendly to them during the arrest will be equally friendly to them once he takes his place on the witness stand.

Other people obsess over the sequence of events that resulted in such a friendly, reassuring arrest turning into the filing of formal charges. They worry that it was something they did that caused this unfortunate turn in events.  Or they pin the blame on a nasty officer at the station who refused to listen to the friendly officer.  But not to worry, they say:  it will be the friendly officer, not the nasty officer, who will be testifying against me at trial.

My investigator, a former police officer from Prince George’s County, tells me that police officers are trained at the Academy to simply make the arrest and then get back out on the street to make more arrests while other officers sort things out at the station.  It is this emphasis on simplicity and ease that shortcuts the investigation process.  It is what often results in the first person to get the officer’s attention ending up as the government’s witness (for example, as in an assault case) and the second person to come to the officer’s attention ending up as the defendant.  While this might make things simpler for the police officer, it greatly complicates matters for both the prosecutor and the defense attorney — to say nothing of the poor guy who is charged with an offense he didn’t commit.