Outside the white-collar arena, most criminal cases aren't based on intricate, multifaceted investigations. When the case involves a one-time event, such as an alleged assault or battery, much or even most of the evidence may have been collected and processed by one or two police officers.
The testimony of those officers, therefore, often makes up the majority of the prosecution's case. That means the credibility and trustworthiness of those officers is absolutely crucial.
What should happen if there is good reason to suspect a particular officer isn't credible?
Recently, prosecutors in Polk County were forced to postpone a jury trial involving a woman charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Details of the allegations against her weren't reported by the Ledger, but the charge was a felony and the trial slated to begin on December 4th. Unfortunately, a Lakeland Police Department officer, presumably the investigating officer, wouldn't be available to testify. The police department had notified the prosecutor that the officer would be having emergency surgery that day.
That apparently wasn't true. Shortly after the trial was postponed, the Lakeland Police Department contacted the prosecutor and admitted there was a serious problem. There was no emergency surgery, and an internal investigation into the matter was underway. The State Attorney's Office has initiated its own investigation, as well.
On December 6th, the case prosecutor was obliged to alert the presiding judge. "This misrepresentation by the Lakeland Police Department resulted in the unnecessary cancellation of a felony jury trial," she wrote, "and the Office of the State Attorney deemed it necessary to immediately inform the court regarding this matter."
Did this officer make up a story in order to excuse himself from a day in court -- causing great expense and inconvenience to the state and defendant? If so, his truthfulness is open to serious question. Nevertheless, the State Attorney's Office plans to move forward with the prosecution.
Will this officer be testifying even if the investigations indicate that he lied? How could a jury be assured he wouldn't lie on the stand? The reliability of any evidence he handled would be similarly open to question.
No one's liberty should be put at risk unless the prosecutor believes he or she can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly in serious felony cases with major penalties. When the credibility of police witnesses is undermined, however, that may well be impossible. At least in this case, the police department advised the prosecutor of the false statement by the officer. Unfortunately such necessary disclosures are not always made known to the prosecution, defense and the courts.
Source: The Ledger, "LPD Investigating: Did Officer Lie to Avoid Trial?" Jeremy Maready, Dec. 18, 2013