Stupid Prosecutor Tricks

June 18, 2004

Robert Tanenbaum, the former NYC prosecutor turned thriller novelist, has a recurring theme in his books, "stupid cop tricks." By this he refers to the process of making up evidence, sweating confessions, phoning in their own tips, and otherwise cutting corners in an investigation where they either have a hunch that one guy did it or where they would rather get evidence than create a strong case.

It is a bad habit, for several reasons. While a hunch can be right, and while often a policeman will know that someone did one set of crimes but not be able to prove it, and will then frame that person for a different set of crimes to get him off the street, it also carries a high risk of prosecuting the innocent and leaving the guilty free to keep acting. (See, for example, the Atlanta Olympics bombing for hunches, or the Central Park Jogger for pressured confessions.) These are bad things.

The checks and balances of the criminal justice system should, if used properly, reduce the use of screwy evidence and poorly aimed prosecutions. Of course, these checks and balances get in the way and sometimes let the guilty go free, and so especially if you have a strong hunch, a Hollywood-style hunch, that one particular person did something you tend to collect evidence that will convict your target and ignore evidence that will explain what really happened. Anytime those institutional checks and balances are reduced or hidden the system ends up relying on the professionalism and ethics of the prosecutors and investigators.

Knowing that, it is deeply disturbing to see the stupid cop tricks that investigators have been using in recent national security investigations. Hat tip to Sgt Stryker.

I worry that the Bush administration is trying to prosecute the war on terror the way that Texas ran its war on drugs in Tulia.

Posted by Red Ted at June 18, 2004 10:53 AM | TrackBack

It's been clear to me ever since we told the UN "stfu, we're invading Iraq, deal with it" that the War on Terror is just the War on Drugs wearing a funny hat. Of course, the War on Drugs was really the War on Civil Liberties combined with welfare for law enforcement agencies.

Posted by: DFH at June 18, 2004 01:30 AM
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