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Impeachment of Law Enforcement Officers (Part I)

In the vast majority of criminal cases, the guilt or innocence of the criminal defendant comes down to the testimony of one or more law enforcement officers. If the judge or jury (whoever is hearing and deciding the case) finds the officers to be credible, then the defendant will almost certainly be found guilty; if not, the defendant is likely to be found not guilty. This often works to the detriment of the defendant as many people tend to believe the testimony of a police officer above that of a lay witness. Changing this perception in any given criminal case usually requires the defendant or his or her attorney to impeach the officer.

What is Impeachment?

Simply put, when a witness is impeached, his or her credibility is called into question. This gives the judge or jury hearing the case reason to doubt the believability of the witness’s testimony. When impeaching a lay witness, the defendant or defense attorney will usually follow one or two approaches:

  • Prior inconsistent statement: If the witness is testifying in a manner that is factually different than a previous statement he or she had given, this can be highlighted and used to raise doubt about the witness’s trustworthiness. For example, suppose a robbery victim described her robber as at least six feet tall and in his early 20’s to police when they spoke with her moments after the robbery allegedly happened. At trial, however, the victim describes the robber as about five feet and six inches and in his 30’s (which just so happens to match the defendant’s height and age). A defense attorney will notice this discrepancy and use it to call the witness’s integrity and trustworthiness into question.
  • Prior behavior or actions: A witness who has been convicted of a felony or of a crime involving “dishonesty or a false statement” can have this fact brought up in court and used to suggest the witness is, in general, a dishonest person. The reasoning used by the defendant or defense attorney is this: “A person who commits (whatever particular felony or crime of dishonesty the witness committed) lacks integrity and cannot be counted on to be truthful or honest about any topic.”

The Value of Impeachment

Of course, the value of impeaching a witness will vary depending on the facts and circumstances of each individual case. In general, impeaching a witness based on a prior inconsistent statement yields better results than impeaching a witness based on a prior criminal act. While judges and juries may not be willing to make the leap of saying all felons or thieves are inherently untrustworthy, they often find it more difficult to excuse a witness who changes his or her story on the stand – especially when the change tends to further implicate the defendant.

South Florida criminal defense attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner is an experienced and skilled advocate who is available to assist Florida residents charged with serious state or federal crimes. Contact his office to schedule your free initial consultation wherein you can discuss your charges with Jeffrey S. Weiner. Call his office at (305) 670-9919 or contact his office through the firm’s website today.

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