Five police officers found lying — and why it’s so rare

Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune contains a rather remarkable story:

One by one, five police officers took the witness stand at the Skokie courthouse late last month for what would typically be a routine hearing on whether evidence in a drug case was properly obtained.

But in a “Perry Mason” moment rarely seen inside an actual courtroom, the inquiry took a surprising turn when the suspect’s lawyer played a police video that contradicted the sworn testimony of the five officers — three from Chicago and two from Glenview, a furious judge found.

Cook County Circuit Judge Catherine Haberkorn suppressed the search and arrest, leading prosecutors to quickly dismiss the felony charges. All five officers were later stripped of their police powers and put on desk duty pending internal investigations.

What I find remarkable is not that five police officers conspired to lie; alas, that does not surprise me. Rather, it is remarkable that they were caught and punished.

But the reassignment to desk duty does make me wonder about perverse consequences. My understanding is that once a police officer is found to have lied on the stand, it is difficult for that police officer ever to testify again, because the finding of dishonesty can be used to impeach them. This means that a finding of dishonesty can carry major professional consequences for an officer.

Let us suppose this is true. Is it possible that this actually dissuades judges from finding that police officers have lied? I’d worry that a judge who thinks that an officer’s testimony is not that believable, but who is not certain, might err on the side of crediting the officer — or at least declining to say anything about it either way — because of the severe consequences to the officer. In other words, I wonder if the severe consequences to being caught lying cause judges to underenforce the requirement of honesty. That could even lead to more lying in the long run.

This is all speculative, of course. I’d love to know whether this is right or wrong.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).

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