Every law enforcement officer will eventually find themselves in court. Hopefully when this happens, they will be testifying in furtherance of a case in an official capacity and not be defending themselves against a charge. When a law enforcement officer is called upon to testify in court, it is imperative that he or she be prepared to do so in a calm, professional manner. While a law enforcement officer need not have every single detail of the case memorized, he or she must be prepared to locate said detail if called upon to do so by the prosecuting attorney, the defense attorney, or the judge presiding over the case. When it comes to courtroom testimony, a little preparation and effort can make all of the difference in the world to a criminal case. By being prepared and having a solid understanding of the facts of the case and the laws surrounding the case, law enforcement officers can navigate any courtroom testimony with ease.
History of Courtroom Testimony
Sworn testimony in a court of law can be traced back to the time of the ancient Romans. In ancient times any citizen of Rome, whether they be male or female, could be called as a witness in a trial and would be required to answer questions regarding the matter at hand. Here in the United States, the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789 was the basis for forming our judicial system. Signed by President George Washington, this act was instrumental in creating a national judiciary that serves as one of the three branches of our government. While times and rules have changed over the years, the concept of testifying in court has not. Like in the time of the ancient Romans, or of our founding fathers, witnesses in court are expected to be entirely truthful during courtroom testimony and are considered to be a vital part of the judicial system.
The most essential action that a law enforcement officer can take before testifying in court is to prepare to do so. While there is a good chance that the officer who is testifying knows their case in great detail, it is always recommended to review any notes, reports, or other items pertaining to the case before testifying. It is also recommended that the law enforcement officer who will be testifying meet with the prosecuting attorney before giving testimony to go over any questions that may be asked by the prosecutor or any questions the prosecutor believes the defense attorney may ask. Will the law enforcement officer be testifying regarding any electronic evidence or other items that may need to utilize a computer or projector? If so, it is worth working with the prosecutor and/or other court personnel to ensure that all equipment is functioning and in good working order. It is also important that the officer get a good night’s sleep the night before testifying and ensure that their appearance is professional before they take the stand.
Lying to the Court
Above all, a law enforcement officer testifying in court must be honest at all times. If there is a question that the officer does not know the answer to, there is no shame in testifying that you do not know. If there is a question related to an event that the officer participated in that he or she does not remember, there is no shame in testifying that you do not remember what happened or what was said. Lying or purposefully omitting facts during courtroom testimony can have long-lasting negative effects on a law enforcement officer’s career and should be avoided at all costs. In Giglio vs. United States (1972), the Supreme Court decided that a defense attorney may call into question the “honesty, integrity, impartiality, and the credibility” of a witness during a trial. If a judge decides that a law enforcement officer has lied during testimony, this decision will be on record with the court forever, and this decision will also be placed in the officer’s personnel file. In United States vs. Henthorn (1991), the Supreme Court decided that a defense attorney may request the personnel files of a witness for the government. The combination of these two cases ensures that the officer caught lying will more than likely be prohibited by his or her department from testifying in court and will likely be unable to work on criminal cases in the future. Lying in court is never a good idea.
Attacking the way police departments and other law enforcement agencies handle and control the evidence they gather is a favorite tactic of defense attorneys. In the famous O.J. Simpson murder case (officially titled People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson), the defense team relentlessly called into question the way the Los Angeles Police Department discovered, analyzed, and maintained the evidence against Simpson. In the end, this line of questioning most certainly played a role in their client being found not guilty of the murders. Knowing that this is a favorite tactic of defense teams, are your prepared to describe the methods of evidence management that are utilized by your department or agency? Can you describe the specific evidence management system that your agency uses? Having a solid grasp on policies and procedures surrounding evidence can make or break a case when relating to courtroom testimony.
Additionally, does your evidence management system retain step by step orders of your evidence collection, handling, and management policies that your sworn personnel can interact with in real time, while conducting any evidence operations they are involved with? The more reinforcement an agency has to their process, specifically surrounding evidence, the less likely mistakes will be made, but even more, the less likely a defense effort can be raised that endangers your entire case, and everyone’s reputation, including that of your agency.
Testifying in a court of law is one of the most important tasks that a law enforcement officer must master during his or her career. If the officer is well prepared and can remain calm and cool during testimony, testifying in court will be no problem. Law enforcement officers must never lie in court and may jeopardize the entire case if they do. In addition to jeopardizing the case, the officer who lies puts their own career in jeopardy, as they will likely no longer be allowed to testify in court in the future. By being prepared and honest, law enforcement personnel can ensure success when providing vital courtroom testimony.