The Tricks Police Play

July 12, 2013

To follow up on our previous piece on how and why police routinely lie in court, this article will look at some of the tricks officers can use to make you look guilty even when you are entirely innocent. As an aside, I should mention that The Innocence Project has helped free hundreds of wrongly convicted people from prison in the last decade, and they point to studies which estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent, which suggests that roughly 46,000 to 100,000 people are currently serving time for crimes that they did not commit. Keep that in mind the next time you are tempted to believe that your innocence will protect you from prosecution.

Here is what some police officers have done according to attorneys and victims of wrongful prosecution. I want to point out that this is not meant to be a study of the issue as much as a useful guide to protecting yourself, so I do not quote a lot of sources. But you can verify the claims here with a few simple searches online if you care to. For example, when I say that police often steal cameras and destroy videos, you can search this phrase online: "police destroy video evidence." Look over the first few dozen results, and you'll see many examples of police taking away peoples video devices when the officers are doing things they don't want seen.

Police Recall What They Need To

Every one of us makes mistakes, and police are no different in this respect. They might forget to collect certain evidence in a case, or skip certain steps in the normal investigative procedures during a long night. But if they feel strongly that the person they arrest is guilty, they often make up for their lack of evidence or poor procedures by recalling things during a trial that they never put in their original report. A year after the fact they might remember, while on the witness stand, that you threw something out the car window prior to being pulled over for a drug arrest. All they have to say is "I forgot to put that in my report," and the jury, which is full of people conditioned to trust the word of any police officer, will forgive the oversight and accept the testimony meaningful.

If there will be police officers on the stand in your trial, be sure that your attorney has reviewed the police reports and can at least challenge the ability of an officer to recall something that was so important, and yet supposedly not important enough to him at the time to include it in the report. If he is good, your lawyer should also be able to somehow remind the jury (without reprimand from the judge) that memories are not that good and that police are humans and can lie.

Police Plant Evidence

Though this is less common than police officers having "extra" memories, it does happen. Even in such a minor case as my fishing violation, which I mentioned in the last article on police lying, an officer was ready to put a hair he had just collected from me days later into evidence as though he had collected it the night of the crime at the scene. The temptation is great when and if an officer thinks you are guilty of some crime, even if not this one. After all, if you are a "criminal" in his mind, he is doing society a favor by framing you. Try to have a friend videotape any arrest (but see the next item) just in case, and if you suspect that anyone witnessed the planting of evidence, get their names and phone numbers so your attorney can talk to them.

Police Steal Video Equipment

The police often feel that citizens do not have a right to videotape them in action. But the right to do so has been recognized by most courts so far. That does not mean officers will allow it though. Police officers still routinely claim the right to take cameras from bystanders or to destroy videos. If you are arrested and friends are videotaping it, tell them to load the video to a social media site immediately to stop the cops from destroying the only copy. Do the same yourself, if you are the one with the camera.

Police Twist Your Answers

In their book, Mistrial, Mark Geragos and Pat Harris explain how, when officers think you are guilty, they will twist your answers to their questions to make them favorable for the prosecution. They give a scenario where a man is being questioned about a bank robbery, and he offers two possible places he might have been at the time of the crime, after which the officer writes down in his report, "Suspect cannot confirm whereabouts at time of robbery." Then the officer asks if the man has been to that bank, and after the poor guy talks too much and includes the fact that he stopped banking there because of new charges they instituted, the officer writes, "Appears to have strong motives for bank robbery and for targeting this particular branch." The officer asks the suspect if he has robbed a bank before and the man laughs and says the most he has done is watch a lot of movies about bank robberies, and so the report reads, "Suspect apparently spent a substantial amount of time researching bank robberies. His admission to smoking pot in college becomes, "Suspect has a history of drug usage."

It is a funny scenario, but then not so funny as well. It reminds us that when we are seen as guilty almost anything said really can be used to make us look guilty. Clam up and ask to see your attorney -- unless you are guilty, in which case you should turn yourself in and confess. The games played by police are meant to trick suspects who they think are guilty. If you are innocent you have no reason to play along.

Police Coerce Confessions

Television programs and movies make it seem that the police never get the wrong guy, and so that anything they do to get a confession is okay. But you might be surprised how often innocent people confess. Geragos and Harris point out in their book that of the hundreds of people wrongly convicted and then free through the Innocence Project's introduction of scientific evidence (usually DNA testing), the defendant had confessed in one third of the cases. We all like to think we would never do so, but after hours of grilling and a lack of sleep it is easy for people to say what is demanded and sign whatever is placed in front of them, sometimes thinking they can correct the confession later, or sometimes no longer caring as long as the torture of the moment ends. Police officers are humans, and make mistakes, and have egos. Once they think they have the guilty party, pushing and pushing for a confession, and even suggesting what it will say, seems justified to them. And once you are convicted, they usually don't want to admit they were wrong.

As I warned previously, don't think your innocence is enough to keep you out of trouble if the police decide you are a "person or interest." Talk to your attorney right away if you think you are being targeted.

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