Clarification, please

July 12, 2006

The credibility of a police officer can make or break a case. It can be the deciding factor in whether a judge or jury believes testimony critical to a defendant's guilt or innocence. Assessing the credibility of a police officer - of any witness, for that matter - is a key component of deliberations in a court trial. But allowing unsubstantiated complaints about a police officer to be used to impeach his or her testimony doesn't seem fair or just. Two Baltimore judges who are pushing the limits of what is traditionally permissible in this area of the law risk heightening suspicions and stereotypes about a police officer's truthfulness and sabotaging criminal cases.

The rulings by Baltimore Circuit Judges John N. Prevas and Wanda K. Heard involve the personnel file of a police officer and how much of it can be presented in court. In two cases reported on by The Sun's Julie Bykowicz, Judge Prevas permitted unsubstantiated complaints against an officer to be used in court; a third involved Judge Heard's decision to allow sustained complaints about a police officer's use of force in the trial of a defendant charged with assault. Police lawyers have argued that a sustained complaint on use of force has no relevance as to whether an officer is telling the truth. And they have since decided to appeal both judges' decisions on the personnel files.

The rulings deserve scrutiny for several reasons. First, using complaints that haven't been verified to assess the veracity of a police officer's statements doesn't add up. Unsubstantiated complaints shouldn't be used. Second, the present standard for using such personnel matters in court turns on the material's relevance to the case. That should be the standard. More is not necessarily better. In most instances, a defendant's past criminal activity is kept from a jury to ensure he or she gets a fair trial.

Last, Police Department lawyers are concerned that organized-crime groups are using the citizen complaint process to target officers with bogus charges. The department has made it easier for citizens to file complaints against officers by not requiring a sworn statement. But if the system is being used to assail police, how is it not like a form of witness harassment?

A few notorious cases of alleged police misconduct this year raised legitimate concerns about a handful of police officers. But the rulings of Judges Prevas and Heard are troubling and should be challenged. Maryland's appellate courts should offer the guidance being sought by the Police Department in the interest of justice for all.

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