Are Most Cops Honest, and Can They Legally Lie?

By Greg Smith posted in Criminal Defense on Thursday, March 17, 2016

I often get asked the question: “Are most Utah cops honest?” My short answer is yes, but let me qualify that. They can also use trickery and deceit, but there are limits. For example, they cannot lie under oath at court.

Just like most professional athletes don’t cheat, most car dealerships don’t roll back odometers, and most stock brokers don’t rely on illegal insider tips, most cops don’t break the very rules they are paid to enforce. After all, there seems to be no profit motive in it for them.

However, there are dishonest cops and Utah’s trust in them took a big blow when it was alleged that Lisa Steed, who over ten years as a Utah state highway patrol trooper, had “built a reputation as an officer with a knack for nabbing drunken motorists, “was accused of having filed bogus DUI reports.” Praise is often a huge motivator, and Lisa Steed got a ton of praise. She was even Utah’s trooper of the year. But as the old saying goes, “If somebody is too good at something…”

However, despite the Lisa Steed bombshell, it’s been my experience Utah jurors usually trust cops. Cops show up at court and look great. They don’t get emotional and seem to be very professional. So, if two or more cops are going to testify against you, the jury will likely go with the cops, unless you have hard evidence to prove they are not being truthful. If it’s you against the cop, you have a chance. After all, you get the presumption of decency (innocence), not the cop.

A couple years ago, I spoke to a retired police officer, who was pretty “high up.” I frankly asked him “off the record” how many cops he thought would absolutely lie under oath to get a conviction. He told me “at least 25%.”

You have to understand. Give people a goal, and a certain percentage of them will either slightly break the rules to achieve that goal, or outright ignore them, no matter what they do for a living. Years ago I taught high school and had to give a kid a failing grade. After that, a “high up” in the school told me that I should change the kid’s grade. I knew why: because his tuition-paying dad didn’t like the grade (it was a private school), but I refused. Oddly, I was not invited back the next year.

Some cops have even gone so far as to claim they could smell marijuana from a passing car they pulled over. Now, that does not even pass the laugh-out-loud-test. Yet, cops almost never get sanctioned when they are caught in “an inconsistency.” When you are illegally pulled over, cops don’t face “false imprisonment charges.” Cops are even allowed to lie to you (but not about your rights), but if you lie to a cop, it’s a crime.

It’s no wonder many people instantly hit the record button on their iPhones when the cops show up. Many cops now have “body cams,” which are great things.

If the cops lie too much (or use too much trickery), there is a question as to whether a confession was voluntarily given. Here is what one court recently said:

“Before a confession may be admitted in evidence, the government bears the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant’s statements were given voluntarily. The test for determining the voluntariness of specific statements ’is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the will of the [suspect] was overborne in such a way as to render his confession the product of coercion.’ In deciding whether a suspect’s will was overborne, the court evaluates the nature of the interrogation—including ’its duration and intensity, the use of physical punishment, threats, or trickery, and whether the suspect was advised of his rights’—as well as the characteristics of the accused—including his age, education, prior experience with the law, and physical and mental condition. Whether appellant’s statements were voluntary is a question of law subject to de novo review on appeal, with the appropriate deference to the trial court’s factual determinations. [A]n involuntary statement is inadmissible at trial for any purpose.”

Little v. United States, No. 10-CF-765, 2015 WL 7012387, at 6 (D.C. Nov. 12, 2015).

If you a tell a cop he can use deception to win, how do you then tell that cop what the suitable parameters of deception are?

Tags: criminal defense

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