By Collin County Criminal Defense Attorney Jeremy Rosenthal
It depends on who is reading it.
Police reports are used for many different reasons. Insurance companies use them to evaluate car accidents and both criminal and civil lawyers rely on them to prepare for cases. In and of themselves, a police report typically isn’t admissible evidence in a court of law so they’re importance is often over-stated. Prosecutors will generally review a report in deciding whether to pursue charges and what charges to pursue.
Combinations of Fact and Fiction
Most police reports in criminal cases are combinations of both fact and fiction. While there are probably officers who are deceitful enough to fabricate facts in a report — my guess is not many officers are willing to jeopardize their career for the sake of a single arrest.
Instead police combine objective observations (such as the car was blue, the road was wet, or gun was loaded) with supposition, hyperbole and mild exaggeration. Police will often take subjective observations and attempt to make them more objective in an effort to support their conclusion.
“In My Training and Experience”
Police officers commonly use the phrase “in my training and experience” both when they testify and when writing police reports. This is a way of converting subjective supposition into objective fact — and it typically makes the defendant look guiltier. Sometimes the officer actually has such experience and training and sometimes they don’t.
For instance, police are actually trained to detect marijuana through the distinctive odor. Perhaps the police academy has ways of re-creating the odor chemically or they actually burn marijuana for training. Also police in the field frequently encounter people smoking marijuana in parks or in cars so officers have enough exposure to marijuana to know the burnt odor. When an officer says in his/her report they know the odor of marijuana “through their training and experience” this is generally an accurate statement.
On the other hand are examples where a person is reported to be “nervous.” An officer might suggest in his report the defendant’s nervous demeanor meant he was in the process of selling drugs because “in (his) training and experience” drug dealers act nervous when they get pulled over.
Another example during a DWI arrest might be where the officer states the defendant leaned on the car for support while being questioned by police. In the officers “training and experience” this is a clue of intoxication but probably just looks like someone with their butt against the car while being questioned. Maybe the police academy gives training in these areas backed with scientific studies but probably it’s just something made-up in good faith to substantiate the officer’s opinion.
Who Uses the Police Report?
Prosecutors will review offense reports to see if they have the basic elements of each case covered. Prosecutors typically don’t scrutinize police reports but in their defense it’s not really their job to do so.
…But I Don’t Agree with the Police Report
Most of my clients find reviewing a police report to be an agitating experience. Both witnesses and defendants alike report they were mis-quoted or statements they did make were selectively included in the report. A police report carries no actual legal weight other than it’s ability to persuade a prosecutor to move the case forward. The time to contest the police report is at trial where the judge and the jury can learn the whole truth about what happened — not just the polished events described by the police.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article should be considered legal advice. For legal advice about any situation you should contact an attorney directly.