Most of what is wrong with the American criminal justice system is summed up in the following headline from the ABA Journal, Rare “Perry Mason” Moment in Court Wins Dismissal for Defendant, Desk Duty for 5 Police Officers. The basic story is sadly typical. The police pulled over Joseph Sperling, a 23-year-old in the Chicago area. They claimed to pulled him over for not using his turn signal. Then, when the officer approached the car, while Sperling was getting his driver’s license, he just happened to smell the cannabis and discovered it.
But the story has a happy ending. The defense attorney, Steven Goldman, sent a subpoena to the Glenview police department for the squad car video. And what do you know? It turned out that every one of the five officers involved in the arrest told the exact same lies. The judge was not pleased about this, calling it “outrageous conduct.” And according to the article, “Cook County Circuit Judge Catherine Haberkorn granted a defense motion to suppress the search, which eliminated a basis for his arrest and resulted in a swift dismissal by prosecutors of the felony drug case against the 23-year-old.”
I am really glad that Sperling lucked out in this case. But what’s sad is that he indeed “lucked out.” This kind of police behavior is not just common; it is standard operating procedure. But look what happens to these cops who conspired against an American citizen, “The officers were later put on desk duty…” There will be an investigation. Most likely, it will find that any collusion was inadvertent. But even if the investigation finds that they did intentionally collude, nothing bad will happen to them because everyone in the police force knows that this is how they do their jobs. It’s just that normally, there isn’t video tape that exposes them. (And even when there is, defense attorneys don’t have the time to check it out.)
Police officers throughout the nation destroy the lives of people all the time. People get arrested on drug possession charges, become labeled felons, and have difficulty finding gainful employment for the rest of their lives. So I have no problem with throwing the book at cops that are caught doing this kind of thing. It shouldn’t just be a matter removal, much less the “indignity” of having to work inside the office. At minimum, they should be prevented from ever working in law enforcement again.
The system we have insists upon treating cases like this as though they are the exception instead of the rule that they clearly are. And so every time an officer testifies in court, it is just assumed that he would never lie. If I were on a jury (and I never will be, precisely because I think this), I would take officer’s word as less reliable than others. I’ve seen this in traffic court. Officers always claim to remember the most banal stuff, which they don’t. It is all in their notes, but of course, they could write anything in their notes. And we see that in this much more serious case.
People always argue for the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. It doesn’t actually work because people don’t usually make calculated, reasonable decisions about murder. But police officers do make calculated, reasonable decisions about bending the rules and making their jobs easier. Deterrents really will work on them. We should throw the book at these officers.