Jefferson Memorial

On Police Officers and Other Bullies

Jamison KoehlerEvidence, Trial Advocacy


I am sitting in JM-15 at D.C. Superior Court watching a Georgetown University law student cross-examine a police officer on a drug case.

The officer is doing the old “dumb officer” routine; that is, he can’t seem to understand any of the questions, even though it is perfectly clear to everyone else in the courtroom what the student is asking.  The officer seeks clarification each time. And he pauses before answering. This is to remind the prosecutor to object.

The officer – bully that he is — is trying to intimidate the student. And the tactic is working. Forced to repeat, justify and explain each question, the student has been taken out of the rhythm of his cross.

But it is not always this way.

I did a similar clinical in law school in which, working under the supervision of a senior public defender in Philadelphia, we represented clients at preliminary hearings and misdemeanor trials.

I still remember the look of condescension on a police officer’s face as he took the stand and found that he would be cross-examined by a Temple University law student. The student stood under five-feet tall and looked like she was 16 years old.

And then she began her cross.

The woman had been a national trial team champion in high school and college. She would go on to become the superstar of my class at the Philadelphia public defender’s office. Watching her take the officer apart question-by-question, bit-by-bit, I couldn’t help thinking of the time I came across our cat torturing a chipmunk. The chipmunk, surprisingly, put up a pretty good fight. But there was no question who would win in the end.

Meanwhile, back in JM-15, I am cross-examining my own version of a bully, a sergeant who arrested my client for stealing a car, crashing it into four parked cars, and then fleeing the scene.  It is a probable cause hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to hold my client pending trial.

This guy is the opposite of the reluctant, taciturn witness the Georgetown student faced.  He wants to bring in every bad fact possible to poison the well against my client, and I, thinking ahead to trial, am only too happy to oblige.  We sit across from each other, he on the witness stand and I from counsel’s table, each of us with a self-satisfied smile, each of us convinced that we have the other guy right where we want him.

The government established probable cause a long time ago. I decide to let him talk.