Saturday, May 06, 2006

Missing Evidence or Missing the Point?

I was reading an article, Attorneys Claim Crucial Evidence Missing In DWI Cases, on the KPRC website ( linked via title bar) this morning, a follow up to a long line of attacks on the Houston Police Department’s DWI Task Force. Today’s article comes out and boldly makes the accusation that officers make marginal arrests and distort evidence in order to increase the amount of time they spend in court. According to the article, to avoid having evidence which might harm their case; it is implied that evidence has been destroyed in order to increase the amount of time in court. The local 2 News Troubleshooter team has been focusing on overtime pay issues which they believe are related to court appearances; specifically as are associated with officers working the DWI Task Force.

"If it's a stumbling, falling-down drunk, that man's going to plead guilty and that officer's never going to make any money on that case. If it's a close call, that officer's going to be down at the courthouse, sleeping for a couple of days getting time and a half,"

{. . . }

"This is an active task force that is out making hundreds and thousands of arrests each year and I can only imagine how many people have been deprived of having their evidence preserved for a jury to decide later,"

You really need to read the entire article to hear the insulting manner in which the integrity of the entire judicial system has been demeaned. This is not to say that one of the bonus perks of working the DWI Task Force is not the extra income that can be made; rather, it is the implication that officers are intentionally arresting innocent citizens, charging them with DWI, placing them in jail in order to spend excessive amounts of time in the court room, at time and a half, in violation of a sacred oath taken to uphold the law the day these officers put on the badge.

When I was working as an active Houston Police Officer one of the most satisfying arrests, if that is the right word for having accomplished something worthy, one of the most satisfying arrests was a DWI. I would observe a vehicle driving in a manner which gained my attention, follow it long enough to justify stopping it on suspicion of DWI, interview the driver to corroborate and further make a case for DWI, and then transport that suspect to the central testing facility for a breath test. The result of the breath test was, in my opinion, proof positive that my arrest was valid. In the event that the breath test results came back below the minimum percentage required by law; that suspect was taken home and all charges were dropped. If the suspect refused to take the test State law provided that my observations were sufficient to file charges; the same applied to a refusal to have a blood test. From the time I spotted the suspect to the time I had verification that I’d been correct was accomplished in short order and I could return to patrol duties.

I had no fancy dashboard mounted camera to corroborate my observations. I had a notepad and kept a record of my conversations in order to later transfer that information to the official police report. In the event of a court appearance I would testify to what was in my notes and the police report. It was never assumed that I had destroyed any evidence by virtue of the fact that no video, with or without audio, was presented.

I wish I’d had such a neat tool to record my observations; the continual adjustments of a vehicle unable to hold a lane, the extreme recovery moves followed by slow drifting and yet another extreme recovery. I could have recorded some very interesting recitations of the alphabet by folks who you’d have thought would have no trouble with such a simple challenge.

I had one fellow, a vice president of an oil company, who was having trouble distinguishing his lane from the curb for several blocks. I recorded his answers in my note book, “A,B,C,D,. . .J,L,. . . R,Z”. He came to court and pleaded not guilty; blaming his erratic driving on the fact that it was a borrowed sport utility vehicle with a different feel than his regular vehicle. I would have paid good money to have that on a recording; something to play for my 4 year old grandson now that he has a firm grip on the complete alphabet, just to watch his reaction to a grown man tripping over an alcohol saturated brain. No, the falling down stumbling drunks don’t all plead guilty, sorry.

I’d have paid good money to have a dashboard mounted camera record the DWI going down Kempwood, bouncing off one curb and then crossing both lanes to hit the other curb for a mile or so, all at about 4-5mph. I had a rookie in the driver seat that night and we were having trouble getting this fellow to pull over. He was in an industrial area at the time; but approaching a residential area with much more potential for disaster when I made the decision to get out of the police car and run along side the suspect vehicle so that I could rap on the window and get his attention. He thought I was Superman, the fog in his head caused him to believe he was driving at the posted speed of 45mph and he was amazed that I was able to keep up without being winded. He plead not guilty too, telling the judge that all those empty whisky flasks on the floorboard were an accumulation from several months. No, not all the falling down stumbling drunks admit to being a danger to society, sorry.

There were times during the secondary testing phase at central where I did have the added benefit of everything being on video camera. The suspect would be asked to perform a standard set of minimal coordination skills, read a paragraph and things like that. I remember being told to remove damaging evidence, things which would sway a judge or jury, when possible. These items were baseball style caps with slogans; “Don’t ask me how many beers I’ve had, I’m drunk”, “I drink, I fish and I drink some more”, “Budweiser”, and other character statements that would or could be damaging to the suspect were they to be viewed in open court.

I could go on and on; but in the interest of time and space will state without hesitation that the only reason I ever placed anyone under arrest for the offense of DWI was because they were driving a vehicle on a city street under the influence of alcohol. I never considered the fact that I would be paid to go to court in order to increase my income; quite the contrary, I would be in court, when I should have been at home and in bed sleeping, to justify the arrest that I’d made. It was a matter of pride that I’d performed my duties in a manner that would be approved of by those who paid my salary. It would seem that if the system has flaws which enable certain officers to make a small fortune incident to their original duties, then repair the system; but be very careful about tarnishing their integrity.

The lawyers and the Troubleshooting team have missed the point; police officers arrest suspects for having violated laws. The more evidence that can be introduced to validate an arrest the better; accumulated lawfully and under the scrutiny of everyone from his immediate supervisor, the District Attorney’s office, the judge and jury and last but not least, to include even that person who was arrested. If at any time there is the hint of impropriety on the part of the police officer’s evidence, the arrest process grinds to a halt and the suspect is released. If further questions arise which would indicate neglect or intentional alteration of evidence then Internal Affairs would handle each as a particular investigation.

I had to answer to an Internal Affairs complaint which had been lodged against me by a fellow I’d arrested for DWI. The claim was that I’d beaten him so badly as to require him to be transported to the hospital because his leg was no longer able to hold him up. I had no recollection of such and so I requested that Internal Affairs review the video taken in the DWI interview room; there was no evidence of any damage to the suspect at that point as he was able to perform basic walking skills, even though intoxicated. I then requested that Internal Affairs review the video taken of all prisoners who enter the Jail; again, no evidence of any damage to the suspect was found. I suggested that the suspect had received his injuries after having left my custody and to look elsewhere. I was so glad that a mechanism such as a video recording was able to back up my insistence that I had not mistreated the suspect. I wish Internal Affairs had used the same logic; their dismissing the complaint as “Not Sustained” rather than “Unfounded” or “Exonerated” left some doubt as to my handling of the arrest. This was a minor technicality and hardly related to padding court overtime or attempting to limit the available evidence; however it does show how backup systems are in place during the booking of a DWI suspect.

Truthfulness and Integrity are not optional character traits for Police Officers of the Houston Police Department. The insinuation that any one officer would intentionally violate the sacred trust given by the citizens is a serious accusation; one which requires immediate action; however, the shotgun approach used by the Troubleshooter team at KPRC sinks far below the level of professional reporting and journalism expected by the public. If there is a complaint to be made, make that complaint through the established and respected avenues already present. The entire Houston Police Department has been slandered by a blanket of innuendos and contrived postulations in order to impress us; with what, the fact that some police officers make gobs of money by attending court.

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