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Spring 2015

Americas Quarterly

By: Shira A. Scheindlin

As a trial judge, I have heard hundreds of cases involving charges of false arrest and excessive force by the police. All of these cases turn on credibility.  The victim (assuming he or she is alive) tells the story from his or her perspective, and the police officers (often more than two) tell their story.  The jury is left in the difficult and uncomfortable position of deciding which side is telling the truth and which side is providing false testimony.
One example makes the point. In a criminal case in Chicago, five police officers swore under oath that they pulled a suspect over after he failed to use a turn signal. One officer testified that when he asked the driver to produce his license and registration, he smelled marijuana and directed the suspect to leave the car and stand by the trunk as the vehicle was searched.  During the search, officers found nearly a pound of marijuana in a backpack on the back seat of the car. Based on the discovery of the marijuana, the driver was arrested.
The suspect testified to a starkly different version of events. He swore that he used his turn signal, was never asked for his license and registration, and that the marijuana was not in a backpack on the back seat of the car, but was hidden under the seat. Then the suspect’s lawyer got lucky. At the last minute, he subpoenaed and obtained a video that had been recorded automatically by the police car—which the police witnesses must have forgotten about. The video showed that immediately after being stopped, the suspect was removed from his car, frisked and handcuffed. The search of the car occurred after the arrest

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