Cops lie. Citizens know this. Defense attorneys know this. Prosecutors know this. Most importantly, judges know this. But rarely does it have any effect on the outcome of the case at hand. But in what has been described as a "Perry Mason moment," five Illinois police officers were caught lying on the stand. (h/t to Trevor Debus)
A seemingly routine suppression hearing in a suburban Chicago courthouse last month took an unexpected dramatic turn when video from a police car was introduced that disproved the testimony of five police officers.
They had said Joseph Sperling was arrested after officers who pulled him over in a traffic stop smelled marijuana, searched the vehicle and found nearly a pound in a backpack lying on the back seat of his car. But the Glenview police video showed the search occurred only after Sperling was taken from his car, frisked and handcuffed, reports the Chicago Tribune (sub. req.).
I suppose once the film rolled, there was little the judge could do but address it. It's one thing for a cop to lie in the courtroom and have it discovered months, weeks or even years later. It's quite another when the testimony is rebutted by video evidence during the same hearing.
"All the officers lied on the stand today," said [Judge Catherine] Haberkorn, who herself is a former prosecutor, at the March 31 hearing. "So there is strong evidence it was conspiracy to lie in this case, for everyone to come up with the same lie."
The officers, currently on desk duty, apparently did
conspire to lie about the specifics of the search, at least according to the lawsuit filed by the arrestee shortly after this suppression hearing went sideways
Joseph Sperling says in his suit that Chicago police asked Glenview officers at the scene of his arrest last June to turn off their squad car dashcams. At least one Glenview officer didn't, resulting in video footage that persuaded a Cook County Circuit Court judge to grant a motion to suppress seized evidence, because police testimony contradicted what the camera showed.
This case has obviously provoked quite a bit of discussion as to how often cops lie and what the final arbiters -- the judges -- do when they take this knowledge into consideration. The answers, unfortunately, are depressing. Even if these temporary desk jockeys manage to retain their jobs, one would think their days as credible witnesses are over. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Scott Greenfield talks about one judge he heard discuss why he kept on pushing defendants into the maw of the prison system
, even while knowing those on the law enforcement side weren't necessarily any better when it came to truth-telling.
After a cocktail or two, Harold talked about how his experience as a judge changed him. Case after case, defendant after defendant, victim after victim, made it all a blur. Sure, cops lied. Everybody knew cops lied. Everybody knew cops lied in every case. That was the game. It was their job to put the bad guy away, and the way to win the game was to speak the magic words that the system accepted as necessary…
What was he supposed to do, Harold asked? They may not all be guilty, but they all were guilty. No one could pluck out the one in a hundred who didn’t deserve to be there, and he wasn’t going to cut everyone free because he couldn’t tell who was who. […] He had a job to do, to keep the cattle moving toward the slaughter. Harold could be a rather charming guy, personally. As a judge, he was utterly despicable.
Judge Richard Kopf, prompted by Greenfield's post, offered his own thoughts as to why he finds cops credible witnesses, despite loads of evidence otherwise
. It's a bracing read and admirably soul-baring, but it's not going to make anyone feel any better about their odds against a lying law enforcement officer. While he makes several points that indicate he's still more careful in his selection process than the Judge Harold mentioned above, he does make the following indictment of his own beliefs and behavior.
I am a shitty judge of credibility. Truly, I am. See here for what happened when I believed a defendant and it blew up in my face with an editorial cartoon and the whole nine yards. Thus, when forced to judge between a cop and a defendant it is safer to believe the cop than the defendant particularly if a judge cares about his or her reputation. While pleading the subconscious in mitigation, there was a period of time when I really thought I might make it to the Circuit if I were a good little boy. See what happened to Judge Baer when he “screwed” up.
Will Baude at the Volokh Conspiracy, who originally questioned whether these five cops would be unable to offer believable testimony in the future
, gathered some notable comments from Judge Kopf's post that lend credence to the belief that everyone in the courtroom knows cops lie
, but there's very little anyone's actually willing to do about it, partly because the system destroys judges who refuse to play along.
Lorin Duckman, a former New York judge, noted how the system lends itself to accommodating lying cops, if only to keep the system moving at the pace that pleases most of those involved.
It’s not just about the trials. Jurors don’t want to sit, don’t understand the instructions and cannot consider what the sentence should be. They cannot tell if a person is lying or not and tend to believe those who look like them or wear badges, despite instructions to the contrary. It’s not about did the accused did it or didn’t do it, most of the time. It’s about the penalties, the sentences, and the lack of a future when one tries to put a life together after doing time. It’s about judges who need to move calendars, jailers and bailiffs, court reporters and clerks who depend on a steady stream of defendants for their livelihood ...
But Duckman also points out that judges have their own livelihoods to consider, and speaking aloud about the fact that cops lie on the stand tends to short-circuit their futures.
[M]ost of all it’s the Judges who sit silently, listening to the bartering, accepting the stories for fear that they will be removed if they question, dismiss or offer justice. Break my hear[t], they did.
A comment I made, “cops lie all the time,” was introduced as evidence at my removal hearing and served as the basis for finding me biased. I couldn’t have been the only judge who believed that, could I?
The system is broken all the way up and all the way down. These five cops were very possibly only called out because it was unavoidable. Their punishment for being caught perjuring themselves has been desk duty, something that may seem tedious compared to pulling people over and illegally searching their vehicles, but can hardly be considered a true punishment. It's not as though the facts are disputed. The cops are being "investigated" after lying in court in front of a judge and several witnesses. There's literally nothing to "investigate."
This is just two police departments (Glenview and Chicago) buying time until they can weigh possible punishments and outcomes. As few judges are willing to confront the fact that cops lie with the same frequency as other human beings, just as few PDs are willing to terminate officers (partly due to pushback from officers' unions), no matter the wrongdoing.
But before all hope is destroyed, another judge (Alabama's Judge Joseph Johnson) commenting at Kopf's blog noted the status quo is changing
, at least in his courtroom.
Yesterday I met with our new police chief (city of 250,000) I I told him I was getting tired of not having video or audio recordings of defendants statements. I said I felt juries disbelieved the rendition by the officer (especially a narcotics officer). I added, I was not sure I was going to believe another citizen consented to the search of his vehicle unless I had a written signed consent to search (which they have). The Chief looked like I had kicked his dog. I said “Hey, the jurors expect this in this age of technology.” We will see.
Looking at this and another set of isolated incidents -- the pushback by two judges against overly-broad search warrants
-- gives a modicum of hope that law enforcement will be finally forced to play by the rules that have been existent since shortly after the founding of this nation. It's too little, far too late and it's marked by outliers rather than exceptions to the rule. But at least it's something
. And the more the public is informed about the routine abuse of civil liberties by law enforcement, the less those tasked with handling the intersection of cops and civilians will be able to ignore the reality of the situation and blithely (and blindly) believe badges denote a more trustworthy class of human.