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Police officers can neglect many important details while completing crime case and arrest reports. Faced with time pressures (like wanting to get off work on time or no overtime budget in their city) or hostile or uncooperative victims, witnesses, and suspects, officers may take shortcuts to save time and energy. These shortcuts may seem innocuous at first, but they can come back to haunt the officer weeks, months, or even years later in court.
Attorneys and their paralegals face a double-edged sword when it comes to the accuracy of police reports. Clearly, all those living in a community protected by police want safer streets, less crime, and a careful, humane, and aggressive police department to look after them. Yet, personal injury attorneys and criminal defense specialists make their livings reading, interpreting, and analyzing police reports for their clients. And they aren't reading these reports because they particularly enjoy them, but because they are looking for mistakes and errors of commission or omission that will help their clients and thereby earn their fees.
Few attorneys truly enjoy attacking police reports for errors, but it comes with the territory. The nature of practicing certain types of law calls for a careful examination of these official documents because, in many cases, they offer the only description of what actually happened at an accident scene, in a crime case, or at an arrest scene. Personal injury auto accident attorneys look for mistakes relating to the officer's examination of the accident scene; his or her opinion of the primary cause; errors made about the physical evidence; incorrect witness statements; errors concerning related factors like the sobriety of the drivers, witnesses, or passengers; the position, location, and veracity of the witnesses; mistakes made in the scale diagram, etc.
Criminal defense attorneys read police arrest reports with an equally careful eye, looking for: points of error relating to probable cause; illegal search and seizure; illegal interrogations; damaged or illegally obtained evidence; and any other supposed flaw in the officer's arrest procedure in relation to a point of law that could offer a chance of acquittal for their clients. This careful scrutiny is just part of the job of being a lawyer. It is an exacting, important task often entrusted to a careful, thorough paralegal.
Getting Police Reports
Rare is the client who brings his or her police report to the initial attorneys' meeting. Most clients have no idea how to get a police report or, in some startling cases, even how to find the police station. A prospective client may also have no access to his or her police report because of time delays at the police agency. In many law enforcement departments, reports written on the day of the accident or arrest may not reach the Records Division for several days and won't be available to the participants until seven to 10 working days later, and then only between certain working hours on specified days of the week.
A report release waiver should always be a part of each "new client" file folder package. After the client signs this release form, make at least three or four extra copies for the file. These waivers are useful and may be mandatory in many states in order for you to get access to police, medical, and insurance records. Most of these agencies have strict rules that go with even stricter state and federal privacy of information laws. No release usually means no report.
Actually getting a copy of the client's police report can often be an exercise in supreme patience. Usually the job falls to the paralegal in a small law office or the designated "errand person" in a larger firm. If the task falls to you and you've been having some difficulty getting access to police reports, try the following steps to ease your way;
Make sure you have a signed and complete records release from the client.
Locate the report before you do anything. This is usually easier said than done. In some small counties, the sheriff's department serves certain areas and the police department serves the rest. However, inside a large county the sheriff will serve the outlying areas (and run the jails), and several different, smaller police departments will serve their respective cities within the county. In an area the size of Los Angeles County, for example, you may have over 100 different law enforcement agencies besides the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
If you work in a multi-city community, like Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, New Jersey, Dallas-Fort Worth, or the Washington, DC, area, it's imperative that you pinpoint the exact location of the client's accident or arrest. Ask him or her what specific agency responded to the scene and who might have taken the report. Don't forget that the State High way Patrol may also have jurisdiction. In some large-scale car crashes or multi-jurisdictional arrests, the client may not know exactly who took the report.
In other cases, the client may have been injured so severely that he or she has no memory of the incident except that it happened. If you're not sure of the location, get a map and verify the street location. Either way, if you know which agency took the report, you can save yourself much time, gasoline, and shoe leather.
Call the police agency, ask for the Records Division, and have the client's last name, incident date, and type of incident ready to give to the clerk. Keep in mind that people in the Records Division are typically overworked and underpaid, doing a tedious, high-volume job. Be as polite and friendly as you can. Even the smallest human touch (a joke about the weather or the workload) can mean the difference between an "I can't find your report and I'm too busy to look" and ''Let me look a little harder for you." Making friends with these clerks is not a bad idea, especially if you expect to deal with them frequently for your report needs. Better to have a bureaucrat on your side than against you or merely indifferent.
When you give the client's information, be prepared to write down the case number. This will speed things when you go to pick up the report. Ask how much the report will cost. Some agencies charge by the page, and others charge by the report. Ask if any photos came with the report and how much these will cost. Many local and state police agencies will take accident-scene photos in death or serious-injury car accident cases.
If you're not sure, ask the clerk for the hours of operation at the Records Division. Make sure you bring the client's release and a blank check to pay for the report. By filling in the check at the counter, you avoid problems related to page miscount or improper calculations of the fee.
When you get the report and before you leave, read it over quickly to be sure ifs the correct one. Make sure the copy is clear and legible and you can read every page. Check to see if the pages are in order and none are missing. Don't hesitate to ask for new copies if the report is fuzzy or incomplete.
Plan your visits carefully. The best times to go to Records are bright and early in the morning or during the hours between 1:30 and 3:00 p.m. Most people (paralegals included) try to go on their lunch hours, and this can mean a long and agonizing wait. If you have more than one case, try to get all the reports you need during one visit. If you call first, get the report numbers, and arrive at a strategic time of the day with the appropriate releases and checks, you should have few problems getting what you need.
Just as there are good, best-selling books and poor, just-sit-there books, there are good and poor police reports. Good ones are written by officers who have realized early on that the path to promotion starts with good people skills and with better-than-most report-writing skills. Furthermore, these officers have also discovered, possibly through hard experience, that good police reports can prevent nasty civil suits. In an era in which armed robbers can successfully sue officers for injuries they received during gun battles, this is no small factor.
The majority of officers in this country can produce an adequate police report, but few are willing to go the extra mile necessary to complete a truly sterling piece of work. Time deadlines, other cases, and pressures from peers or supervisors can prevent an otherwise good officer from writing the best police report he or she can.
Here is a somewhat alarming paradox: mediocre police reports that leave out the facts and expose law enforcement agencies and their municipalities to civil suits can become your "trump card" in a traffic accident or criminal defense case. Since many police reports are merely adequate, i.e., "I came, I saw, I wrote, I left," you can learn to read reports involving your clients with a more practiced, if not jaundiced, eye.
Finding errors, exploiting omissions, or attacking the officer's experience or training may not sound too friendly nor make you popular with the police, but it does offer one time-honored way for attorneys to win cases for their clients. The more you know about how certain police officers write their reports, the better chance you have to exploit a possible weakness to your advantage.
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