Last week, media scrutiny was directed at the Dallas Police Department when the chief of police fired Officer Eric Watts after he was indicted for filing a false police report in March. According to the news reports, Mr. Watts’ false statement was discovered after reviewing dash-cam footage from his squad car. “Dirty cop” allegations are always sensational, newsworthy stories, but the issues they raise in the context of criminal defense are rarely addressed. Below are a few thought provoking questions which probably won’t be asked or answered in the news. Getting a dash cam is a good idea in case an accident happens and you need proof of what happened, here is the best truckers dash cam.
Why is a misdemeanor before the grand jury?
Both the Texas Constitution and Texas statutes require a grand jury indictment to prosecute a felony (ref.: Whitney S. Boan, P.A.). However, misdemeanors are typically charged when district attorney files an “information” accompanied by a sworn complaint. Based on the wording of the indictment, Mr. Watts was indicted on a misdemeanor offense. So, why did the district attorney not simply charge Mr. Watts by filing an information.
There are a few possibilities that I can think of – all of which are, admittedly, pure speculation. One of the first that comes to mind is the requirement that an information be accompanied by a sworn complaint which is almost always made by a police officer investigating the crime. Taking the case to a grand jury would eliminate the necessity of a sworn complaint. Without the necessity of a sworn complaint, the Dallas Police Department doesn’t have to fall on the sword and ask the district attorney to charge one of their own.
Another possible reason for a misdemeanor by indictment could be attributed to grand jury discretion. When an individual’s criminal conduct falls on the borderline between felony and misdemeanor conduct, sometimes the district attorney will allow the grand jurors to indict an individual with one or the other. Sometimes, a defense attorney can even submit a packet to the grand jury advocating for such a decision.
Finally, the grand jury could be used in this case as a tool to provide political cover. A district attorney needs to have the support of local law enforcement—for many reasons. Ultimately, the decision to take the case to the grand jury rests in the discretion of the prosecutor, but the decision of the grand jury provides some insulation by allowing members of the community decide whether a case should be prosecuted.
How often are officers caught in a lie?
Police reports are usually biased. Not only are they written by people with a predilection for guilty, they are also supposed to support the conclusion of guilty. As a group, police take honesty and integrity seriously—but there will always be officers who make exception to this rule.
A police report will not run afoul when liberty is taken in the form of qualitative observations or speculation, such as the “the injury was severe” or “I believed he was lying.” It is when an officer takes a step beyond mere advocacy and invents facts material to a criminal offense that an officer subjects himself to criminal culpability, himself.
What happens to the guy who was falsely accused?
According to Peter Iocona and news reports, the motorist was arrested for both Felony Evading and Felony Aggravated Assault. After reviewing the dash cam video posted on the internet, two things are fairly clear: (1) without question the officer lied about the aggravated assault, and (2) without question the motorist was evading arrest in a motor vehicle. From a strictly legal perspective, the officer lying about the assault has nothing to do with the evading. From a practical perspective, it does. Not only can the false allegation be used to impeach the officer on issues in the Evading case, the jury can always choose to disregard the law and find a person not guilty based on some non-legal reason.
It appears that the motorist entered a plea of guilty and received deferred adjudication on the Evading charge. If it was made known to the motorist prior to entering a plea that the Dallas Police Department had determined that Mr. Watts lied about the assault, there is not much left to complain about. However, if this was not disclosed, it could be enough to have the court to reverse the conviction and allow the motorist to reconsider how he wants to resolve the case.