In the United States, anyone charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But many people accused of crimes never make it to court or even to the police station. Too many police interactions end with suspects being shot and killed for dubious reasons. Naturally, these stories - many involving minority suspects - have strained relationships between law enforcement agencies and the communities they have sworn to protect.
There are many complex factors that need to be considered in any discussion about fighting and preventing crime. Most can now agree that high crime rates are not simply the result of personal irresponsibility and low moral character. Instead, it is now clear that socioeconomic status and race play significant roles in the equation.
We have previously written about the public misperceptions of forensic testing. Shows like CSI have convinced Americans that forensic tests performed in criminal cases are completely reliable and produce results that are indisputable.
Now, perhaps more than ever before, Americans are taking a hard look at our criminal justice system and realizing that it is broken. Wrongful convictions are far more common than most people thought they could be, and the causes of wrongful convictions are not simply honest mistakes. Much of the time, they are the product of lazy police work, prosecutorial misconduct and coercive tactics used on defendants who cannot advocate for themselves.
We often write about criminal appeals that go before the U.S. Supreme Court. These cases do not just affect the defendants involved. They nearly always address an important civil rights issue that is relevant to law enforcement across the country. Typically, they focus on how a certain aspect of a statute can be or should be applied.
We've all seen the TV crime dramas. When it is time to interrogate a suspect, investigators use a number of tactics: the bright overhead lights, hours of questioning, good cop vs. bad cop, threats, intimidation and bargaining. These are all meant to get to the truth and elicit a confession. In real life, these tactics may very well elicit a confession, but that doesn't mean it will be truthful.
In our previous post, we began a discussion about proposed mens rea reforms in bills being considered by Congress. The concept of mens rea - a term often translated as "guilty mind" - is an important component of criminal justice. Traditionally, in order for an act to be considered criminal, the actor must have been aware that it was illegal and acted with criminal intent.
Most of us would consider ourselves law-abiding citizens. But can we be sure? By some estimates, there are approximately 4,500 or more crimes on the books, and that's just at the federal level. And because there is no central database (which would seem like a no-brainer), there is no way to definitively quantify the number of criminal statutes.
It has often been said that technology evolves faster than our ability to regulate its use. You might think the danger in this equation comes from consumer products that are released to the general public without proper testing and rules governing use. But in many cases, the real danger lies in how modern technology is used (and abused) by law enforcement agencies and other arms of the government.
We have written several times in the past year about the growing distrust between American communities and the police officers who work within them. This anger and distrust has been sparked, in large part, by the numerous fatal shootings of unarmed African-American men by white police officers. Many other examples of apparent racial profiling in traffic stops have been recorded and shared by the suspects and bystanders. Such incidents have occurred here in Wisconsin as well as other parts of the Midwest.