Constitutional, Legal and Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice
Police abuse remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses. Police or public officials greet each new report of brutality with denials or explain that the act was an aberration, while the administrative and criminal systems that should deter these abuses by holding officers accountable instead virtually guarantee them impunity.
However, there are some things that need to be mentioned in order to fully understand the nature, role and importance of policing. Police work by its very nature involves the slippery slope (the potential for gradual deterioration of socio-moral inhibitions and perceived sense of permissibility for deviant conduct). Police are routinely involved in undercover work which involves taking on false identities and inducing crime, they are allowed to make false promises to hostage takers and kidnappers, they often feed disinformation to the media and are trained to be deceptive at interviewing and interrogation. Police make all kinds of excuses to get out of nuisance calls, trade or sell their days off and desirable work assignments or strain the truth to protect loved ones and crime victims. Police routinely invade privacy via surveillance and other technological means. Finally, police fighting the drug problem may encounter more loose cash than the gross national product of some small countries.
The police are the enforcement arm of government and the keepers of public order. The judicial system ultimately depends on the police for the enforcement of laws or court decisions. A close look to criminal law and criminal procedure may help define the structure of police work and its role and future development, as it follows the guiding principles of the criminal legislative and judicial system.
There are two fundamentally different types of court cases -- criminal and civil. A criminal case arises when the government seeks to punish an individual for an act that has been classified as a crime by Congress or a state legislature. A civil case, on the other hand, usually has to do with a dispute over the rights and duties that individuals and organizations legally owe to each other. There are significant differences between criminal and civil cases. For instance, in a criminal case a prosecutor, not the crime victim, initiates and controls the case. The prosecutor may file criminal charges even if the victim doesn't approve, or refuse to file criminal charges despite the victim's desire that criminal charges be filed. This method of beginning the case contrasts with civil cases where the injured party is the one who initiates the procedure. A person convicted of a crime may pay a fine or be incarcerated or both. Instead, people who are held responsible in civil cases may have to pay money damages or give up property, but do not go to jail or prison. In criminal cases, government-paid lawyers represent defendants who want but can't afford an attorney. Parties in civil cases, on the other hand, usually have to represent themselves or pay for their own lawyers. (Juvenile court cases and cases involving civil contempt of court where jail is a possibility, are exceptions to this general rule.) In criminal cases, the prosecutor has to prove a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." In a civil case, the plaintiff has to show only by a "preponderance of the evidence" (more than 50%) that the defendant is liable for damages. Defendants in criminal cases are almost always entitled to a jury trial. A party to a civil action is entitled to a jury trial in some types of cases, but not in others.
Sometimes the same conduct may violate both criminal and civil laws. A defendant whose actions violate both criminal and civil rules may be criminally prosecuted by the state and civilly sued by a victim for monetary damages.
Criminal procedure is composed of the rules governing the series of proceedings through which the substantive criminal law is enforced. In the United States, most crimes are defined by local and state government, though the federal government has adopted its own criminal code, to deal with activities extending beyond state boundaries or having special impact on federal operations.
States also have statutes that set out the framework for criminal procedure, subject to important constitutional limits. The U.S. Constitution Bill of Rights provides basic protections including the right to an attorney, the right to not testify, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to a jury trial, among others. State constitutions may increase, but not take away from the federal protections.
The American criminal system is an adversarial and accusatorial model. Criminal procedure must balance the defendant's rights and the state's interests in a speedy and efficient trial with the desire for justice. Therefore, the rules of criminal procedure are designed to ensure that a defendant's rights are protected.
Though legislators have relatively unfettered power to decide whether a certain behavior should be a crime, many rules limit the ways in which the state or federal government can prosecute someone for a crime. These restrictions start with the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, which provides basic protections-such as the right to refuse to testify against oneself, the right to confront one's accusers and the right to a trial by jury-for people charged with crimes. State constitutions may increase (but not take away from) the federal protections. Federal and state legislatures can pass laws governing how criminal procedures work in their jurisdictions, but these laws cannot reduce the protections offered by the federal and state constitutions.
The interplay between constitutional provisions and legislative enactments is regulated by the courts. Courts decide whether or not a particular legislative rule, court practice or police action is permissible under federal and state constitutional law. What may seem like a slight variation from one case to another can be, in the eyes of a court, the determining factor that leads to a vastly different result. For example, a police officer is frisking a suspect on the street and feels a hard object in the suspect's pocket. Suspecting that the object is a possible weapon, the officer reaches into the pocket and finds both a cardboard cigarette box and a packet of heroin. This action by the police officer -- reaching into the pocket -- would be deemed a permissible search under the rulings of most courts (to protect the officer's safety), and the heroin could be admitted into court as evidence. However, if the object felt by the officer was soft and obviously not a weapon, then reaching into the suspect's pocket might be deemed an illegal search, in which case the heroin couldn't be used as evidence.
Police, state, and federal authorities are responsible for holding police officers accountable for abusive or arbitrary acts. Police officials must ensure that police officers are punished when they violate administrative rules, while state and federal prosecutors must prosecute criminal acts committed by officers, and where appropriate, complicity by their superior officers. Each of these entities apply different standards when reviewing officer responsibility for an alleged abuse. All of these authorities have an obligation to ensure that the conduct of police officers meets international standards that prohibit human rights violations and that, in general, the U.S. complies with the obligations imposed by those treaties to which it is a party. While only the federal government is responsible for reporting internationally on U.S. compliance with the relevant treaties, local and state officials share responsibility for ensuring compliance within their jurisdictions.
Police deviance is a much broader term than corruption or misconduct. It includes all activities which are inconsistent with norms, values, or ethics. America's obsession with police deviance, especially police brutality is deeply rooted, especially because of some incidents which were highly publicized by the media, and by television networks in particular. For instance, "in the early hours of March 3, 1991, a police chase in Los Angeles ended in an incident that would become synonymous with police brutality: the beating of a young man named Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. An amateur video, televised nationwide, showed King lying on the ground while three officers kicked him and struck him repeatedly with their nightsticks. No one who viewed that beating will ever forget its viciousness."
The Rodney King incident projected the brutal reality of police abuse into living rooms across the nation, and for a while, the problem was front page news. Political leaders condemned police use of excessive force and appointed special commissions to investigate incidents of brutality. The media covered the issue extensively, calling particular attention to the fact that police abuse was not evenly distributed throughout American society, but disproportionately victimized people of color.