By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
Yes, no and maybe so.
Each police report is its own snowflake. No two are exactly the same (unless the officer does a bad job with a cut & paste).
When I have my clients look at police reports I typically caution them they will not like what they’re about to see. This is because many offense reports can be heavily spun to support the officer’s conclusion and read like scathing propaganda when they are the subject of the story. Police include facts which support their decision to arrest and facts and theories which don’t support their own see the editing room floor.
Police don’t write reports to be malicious but they probably feel that way to us when we read them. They are simply justifying their decision to arrest.
We also have to understand rarely would a single arrest be important enough for an officer to stake his or her career on. If they are caught being dishonest — most good agencies won’t have anything to do with them. They really are trying to do their best. They just see the world — and the arrest differently.
Fortunately a police report is of limited importance.
Rarely do I come across something in a report which is just an unmitigated whopper. I have to keep several things in mind when I’m reviewing a police report.
- My client and I have a different version of events. This doesn’t make the officer a liar. He or she just saw the events a different way.
- It is normal for a police officer to omit facts which don’t support their conclusion.
- There is a difference between lies and exaggerations.
Exaggeration in Police Reports and the “Halo Effect”
A “Halo Effect” is a cognitive bias about someone or something which causes a person to paint an over-all picture about that thing a certain way. For instance when an employer does a job review for an employee they like – they might give the employee better marks for individual tasks than they otherwise deserve. The employee’s “halo” blinds our view of other not-so-perfect traits.
But we’re focused here on the reverse. The officer’s negative impression of the arrestee paints facts and traits which are negative, not positive. So it is not uncommon to see on offense report where everything negative fact about a defendant down to dirty fingernails is listed by the officer. We see a “reverse” halo effect in a police report.
How to Use Police Lies to Your Advantage In A Criminal Case
Today we have more and more use of body-cams, in car videos, and even citizens filming police with their own cell phones. When the police lie, exaggerate, or omit facts from their police report which don’t support their conclusion — then often time they are caught because the video shows otherwise.
In cases where there is no video, the challenge is different. A skilled cross-examination can show how surrounding circumstances and logic make their conclusion not so.
The Bottom Line:
Rarely will we ever completely agree with the police officer’s account. But we have to remember his or her account is only so important. In showing the jury the truth, we do not have to defeat the officer — we have to show the officer was mistaken/ biased/ exaggerating/ inconsistent or whatever human trait lead him to an imperfect conclusion. This takes skill.
*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.