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When cops use “magic language”, watch out for exaggeration, omission, and prevarication

Apr 15, 2009 When cops use “magic language”, watch out for exaggeration, omission, and prevarication

Why do cops repeatedly parrot back similar language in their incident reports, no matter the suspect? If there is a training manual with this standard language, I want it, whether through a freedom of information request or otherwise:  

Here is some standard language I see repeatedly:  

For drunk driving cases: “The defendant had slurred speech, and bloodshot and watery eyes.” This language is probably prompted by field sobriety testing training manuals.  

For drug frisks: “I asked the driver if s/he had any drugs, weapons or nuclear devices in the vehicle. S/he did not respond, so I asked again.” (Read that as “I rested my hand on my gun handle, leaned forward menacingly with barely two inches separating our noses, and yelled: ‘I asked you, what the f_ck’s in your car? Do you have a  hearing problem or something? If not, how dare you be so rude as to not answer me?’”)  “S/he sweated profusely [because of the cop’s intimidation tactics?] when s/he denied having any such items in the car. As I sat in my cruiser to run a check for open arrest warrants, the suspect made furtive movements.” The “furtive movements” language may be inspired by such cases as Carroll Washington v. U.S., ___ F.3d ___ , slip op. at 6 (D.C. Cir., March 27, 2009). http://pacer.cadc.uscourts.gov/docs/common/opinions/200903/06-3093-1172571.pdf ( furtive movements may be grounds for a Terry stop and search). 

For confidential informant cases: “The CI made contact with me” — cops speak in terms of making contact and responding, rather than just right out saying “s/he phoned me or s/he walked up to me” —  “and said that the defendant would be arriving that afternoon next to the Piggly-Wiggly supermarket in a purple Chevy Impala, with an unspecified quantity of crack cocaine to sell. This CI has worked on similar investigations before with law enforcement and has proven to be reliable, because we have always seized drugs when following this CI’s tips.” However, how often did the police decide not to follow the tips of that confidential informant? In any event, such language would be inspired by such cases as Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983) and the recently-decided Robinson, v. Virginia, ___ Va. App. ___ (April 14, 2009), http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opncavwp/2427071.pdf .  

When courts give cops “magic language” to use to support a stop, search or conviction, it can be irresistible even for a cop who otherwise cringes at lying, to try to jam a square peg into a round hole to get his or her testimony to track the "magic language". Because of the repeated number of times that cops likely lie —- after all, cops are drawn from the general population, where lying is rampant — that is one more reason to shrink the number of actions that are criminalized in the first place (e.g. ,to legalize marijuana and to eliminate per se criminal blood alcohol levels for drunk driving cases), and to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing and the death penalty; and that is all the more reason for judges not to attribute any less lying risks to cops than to anybody else.  

When cops use "magic language", watch out for exaggeration, omission, and prevarication. Magic is not reality.

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