On law and crime
I recently wrote about a local man who had been arrested after having allegedly struck a female with his vehicle at the intersection of Main Street (Highway 85) and West Valley Road (Highway 26). I have heard a great deal of criticism about law enforcement’s, the county attorney’s and the Telegram’s response to this matter. I would like to take a moment to explain some things.
I served as a law enforcement officer in Nebraska and have dealt with situations such as this, firsthand. I would like to provide a better understanding of how the criminal justice process works and why it works in the manner it does. I know the criminal justice process in the United States is not perfect, but I also fully believe it is the best system out there.
One of the most important things to understand is real life is not comparable to the movies and television crime dramas of today. “Law and Order,” “Blue Bloods,” “CSI,” “NCIS,” “911” and all the other hit television shows are fun to watch, but they are not realistic in the sense of timing, among other things.
In these shows, a crime is committed, an investigation is conducted, including forensic evidence analysis, a trial is held, and the accused is found guilty in a 30-minute to an hour-long period.
In reality, a crime is committed, law enforcement officers respond and begin their investigation. The timing of matters can change here if a law enforcement officer witnessed the violation. An arrest may be able to be made immediately because the law enforcement officer saw it happen.
If not, the officer must take statements from witnesses, review video footage, take fingerprints, take samples of bodily fluids, take fingerprints, etc. The officer then has to send the forensic evidence collected to the regional crime lab. This process can take weeks and even months to get results.
I had a case several years ago in Nebraska where fingerprints and DNA were taken from an object, and I didn’t receive conclusive results for almost six months.
Law enforcement then must find out who the perpetrator is, not who people think the perpetrator may be, and prepare an affidavit which declares who is responsible and why the officer knows that person is responsible.
Once the officer feels they have enough evidence to meet the threshold of probable cause, meaning a reasonable person would believe there is fair probability this person committed the crime or the person possesses evidence which would result in proof of the commission of a crime, the officer then writes and submits an affidavit of probable cause. The affidavit is then sent to a circuit court judge, through the county attorney, with an information establishing the facts of the case to support filing a criminal complaint against the suspect.
If the judge determines probable cause has been established in the matter, the judge will then order an arrest warrant for the suspect. However, if the judge determines the affidavit and information lack probable cause to establish a person committed a crime or each of the elements of a crime were not met, the judge will return the affidavit and ask for more supporting facts to reach the level of probable cause.
A key distinction to be made is probable cause can result in the arrest of someone, but conviction requires a high burden of proof, proof beyond a reasonable doubt. To establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor must be able to convince either the judge or a jury with evidence (physical evidence, forensic evidence, testimony) there is no reasonable explanation other than what was presented at court proving a defendant’s guilt in the matter.
Another distinction to make is one must realize there is a vast difference between reality and the courtroom. Reality is already present; we can see it, touch it, hear it, smell it and taste it. In the courtroom, events must be constructed.
Look at it this way; attorneys in the courtroom have to construct everything through evidence and testimony. They begin by asking questions of the witnesses. In the case of a criminal matter, the police officer, deputy, trooper, etc. is typically the first to describe what happened through their observations.
The officer identifies themselves to the court, establishes their training and experience and begins to tell how they discovered a crime had occurred; this can come from a call made to 911 or the communications center, the officer’s own observations or through firsthand reports from witnesses.
The officer then describes how they collected evidence, conducted interviews and came to the conclusion a person was responsible for the crime alleged against the defendant.
The officer’s testimony is only one small piece to the puzzle. The prosecution will often have other witnesses testify before the court on what they observed and will have experts testify to establish the credibility of the forensic evidence analyzed.
Following the prosecution and defense presenting their case to the court, the judge or jury will then make the determination whether a crime was committed and whether the defendant is guilty of having committed the said crime, beyond a reasonable doubt. One doubt, only one, will find the defendant acquitted, or found not guilty, of the crime alleged.
Shifting gears for a moment, we at the Telegram report on matters such as crimes when we become aware of an investigation and after having done our due diligence to know we have the presented facts of the alleged crime and investigation, not rumors spread throughout the community. It’s very important we do not show bias in the matter or upset the investigation, prosecution or defense of the accused. It’s also incredibly important we do not report on rumors or emotional responses to alleged crimes.
Oftentimes, we will generate a news report from the affidavit of probable cause and information filed in the court or from attending the hearings in the courtroom. While the affidavit of probable cause and information only show one side of the matter, we are careful to clearly explain this information is obtained from those documents and are only allegations made by the prosecution. The allegations still have to be proven in a court of law.
Part of the reason we generate reports from these documents and not interviews from the accused is to protect the accused’s rights. If an accused person wants to make a statement, they can, but the statements they make are public and can be used against them in a court of law. The last thing the Telegram wants to do is violate the rights of the accused.
I hope this article helps to provide a better understanding of the criminal justice system, the court process and the newspapers duty to protect rights when reporting on alleged criminal matters.
If you have any questions or comments about anything contained herein, please contact me in person at 2025 Main Street, by calling 307-532-2184 or emailing me at [email protected].