Court proceedings, in particular criminal trials by jury, can be intimidating for the ill prepared law enforcement officer. No matter the level of actual experience, jurors tend to expect the law enforcement officer on the witness stand to be an expert in the matters at hand in the criminal trial. This paper will seek to research and provide advice that can help influence the outcome of a criminal trial to the law enforcement officer who is a novice to courtroom testimony experience.
Many law enforcement officers and criminal prosecutors who are experienced in trial proceedings would agree that being prepared is the first and likely one of the most important steps in testimony at trial. Proper preparation and diligent investigation are essential to successful prosecutions of criminal cases (Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, 2011). A properly written, formatted, accurate and edited police report is the key to preparedness. Police reports should contain all of the relevant facts known to the officer at the time the report was written with few, if any, opinions noted in the report. The order in which the facts and information in the report should be logical and will usually be in chronological order for ease of reading and reference at trial. Accuracy and authenticity are also important as an officer is usually an impartial third-party who investigates and reports the facts with an appropriate level of professional emotional detachment from the crime that occurred. Officers should refrain from using cookie-cutter style reports and should individualize each report to the investigation or case at hand. Once an officer has received a subpoena for his or her testimony at court, she or he should make a copy of the original report for review prior to arriving at the courtroom and bring the copy along for reference during testimony.
An officer’s presentation and appearance in the courtroom may be a critical factor in the influence and persuasion of the judge and members of the jury (Ottawa University, 2011). In most cases law enforcement officers should wear a clean, sharply pressed uniform to all court appearances. Utility uniforms such as BDU-style or designated “Class B” uniforms should generally be avoided for court appearances. Officers in plain clothes assignments may opt for appropriate and professional business attire in lieu of a uniformed appearance. Officers should remember that the filthy felony suspect who was wearing torn jeans and a dirty t-shirt on the day of arrest will likely be clean shaven and wearing a dark colored suit with a white shirt and neutral tie sitting next to his similarly attired defense attorney.
Once a law enforcement officer is sworn in as a witness and on the witness stand, the professional officer should remember that he or she is there as a neutral, detached and personally uninvolved third party; unless, of course, she or he is the victim witness of a crime such as assault on a public servant. When answering questions officers should remember to be themselves, to be honest, to be polite and to be willing to acknowledge if they do not recall a particular piece of information of which they are questioned. All questions should be answered directly and straightforward with minimal explanation or qualification of the answer, unless such qualification is appropriate. Officers should also remember not to argue with or become emotional during cross-examination by the defense attorney – his or her job as an attorney is to find reasonable doubt in the criminal accusation and may try to do so through discrediting police witnesses. It is generally bad practice to volunteer extra information that does not directly answer the question immediately at hand. Finally, when answering questions it is also appropriate to look at the jury or the attorney who asked the question (U.S. Attorney’s Office, 2011).
Preparation, appearance and demeanor of the law enforcement professional witness can all have significant impact on the outcome of a criminal trial by jury. If an officer has not had previous courtroom experience it may be advantageous to visit the court ahead of trial and observe the testimony of other officers who are experienced on the witness stand. Officers should remember, however, that they will likely not be allowed to observe the testimony of other officers or witnesses on cases to which they may be called to the stand for testimony. With good preparation and effective testimony, most law enforcement officers will find that testimony in court proceedings can become a normal, routine and comfortable experience.
Clark County Prosecutor’s Office. (n.d.). Effective Courtroom Performance by Indiana Law Enforcment. Retrieved on April 2, 2011, from http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/.
Ottawa University. (n.d.). Weekly Materials, Week 4: Police and the Court Systems. Retrieved on March 27, 2011, from http://ottawa.blackboard.com/.
U.S. Attorney’s Office. (n.d.). Fifteen Tips for Witnesses. Retrieved on April 2, 2011, from http://www.justice.gov/usao/.
© 2011 – 2014, Jeremy Liebbe. All rights reserved.