Officer Pullover is tailing a car that’s turning into a Taco Bell parking lot at about 10:00 p.m. The officer runs the car’s license plate and learns that, despite the car having 2012 tags, the vehicle’s registration expired in 2010 and was never renewed.
Someone’s not getting his Volcano Burrito tonight.
As the car rolls into the drive-thru lane, the officer flashes his car’s police lights. The driver begins to order “food.” The cop, believing the driver has not seen the lights, gets on his car’s loudspeaker.
“Driver, pull out of the drive-thru and park, immediately.”
The driver complies by abandoning his conversation with the drive-thru squawk box, and guiding the car into a parking lot stall. The cop follows, stopping his car 25 or so feet behind the burrito enthusiast’s vehicle.
As the officer steps out of his car, the pulled-over car’s front passenger door swings open. Out pops the passenger, and he’s off. We got a runner. The cop stands still and upright as he yells to the runner to stop. The runner does not stop. He is gone into the night.
The officer calls for backup on his shoulder-mounted radio unit as he draws his service pistol and slowly approaches the car. He screams at the driver and remaining passengers to keep their hands up where he can see them. They do. As he holds his gun on the three, the backup arrives.
The driver and two passengers are gotten out of the car and handcuffed. The backup officers engage in a perfunctory bit of reconnaissance in the surrounding area, but can’t find the runner.
Officer Pullover looks at the three hungry, handcuffed unfortunates and wearily asks them to identify the runner. “Name, what’s his fucking name?” Not a sound is heard from the gentlemen, but for the metallic jangle of the driver’s handcuffs as he leans forward slightly to adjust his shoulder placement.
A gang cop arrives on the scene, and when he sees the three fellows in handcuffs, he informs the original officer, “Hell, if it’s these three pieces of shit, that runner’s gotta be X.”
Officer Pullover repairs to his car and pulls up a photo of X on the car’s information monitor. He walks back over to the gang cop and nods, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the runner. X.”
The handcuffed driver’s within earshot of this nascent conversation, and he blurts out, “Nah, no way it’s X. X’s locked up.” Officer Pullover approaches the police vehicle in which the driver sits, detained.
“Where’s he locked up?” the officer asks.
“I’m not really sure, but I know he’s in prison right now,” explains the driver. The gang cop wanders over.
“What’s he saying?”
Officer Pullover repeats the driver’s info. “He says X is in prison right now, so there’s no way X is the runner.”
The gang cop nods knowingly. “Okay, okay, if it’s not X, it’s gotta be Y. Y’s the other dipshit always hanging out with these assholes.”
Officer Pullover goes back to his car and pulls up Y’s photo. “Yeah, that’s him,” he shouts to the gang cop. As these words are gone from his mouth, another officer who’s busy searching the pulled-over car yells, “Take a look.”
The gang cop and Officer Pullover approach and are directed to look under the front passenger seat. Wedged in there: a loaded revolver. “Ahh, we’ve got guys going to jail tonight,” says the gang cop, smug as all get-out.
Here is Officer Pullover’s description of the runner in his police report: “black male adult, 6’2”, with dreads and black clothing.” That is it. The officer does claim in his report, however, that when the runner exited the car, he looked back in the officer’s direction, allowing the officer “to look at his face.” From a distance of at least 25 feet, at night, in the span of perhaps a third of a second.
Here are Y’s vital statistics from a computer database: black; male; 5’8”; 140 pounds.
An arrest warrant for Y is issued. Y is subsequently arrested (not by Officer Pullover). Y, it turns out, is not really 5’8”, more like 5’6”. And he’s closer to 130 pounds than 140 pounds. He is light-skinned black, and he has thin dreadlocks.
At a court hearing for Y and his codefendant (the driver of the pulled-over car) in front of a judge, Officer Pullover testifies. Y’s attorney asks that Y not be brought into the courtroom until the officer provides an independent description of the runner, so as to prevent the officer from staring at Y while testifying, thereby tainting the description. That request is granted.
Officer Pullover describes the runner in much the same manner as he documented him in his report, with a further detail: black; male; 6’2”; black clothing (but nothing more descriptive); dreadlock hairdo; and around 230 pounds.
After this testimony, Y is brought into the courtroom (all 5’6” and 134 pounds of him). Officer Pullover is asked if he recognizes the runner in court, and he says yes and identifies Y as the runner that night a couple of weeks ago. He had never seen Y before that night, nor has he ever seen him again, before this court hearing.
When the prosecutor asks Officer Pullover if his in-court identification is based upon seeing the runner’s face or upon the photo of Y he was prompted to look at by the gang cop, the officer says he’s recalling the photo. The prosecutor is obviously unhappy with this answer, so he scrambles to clean up the officer’s testimony. “Well, removing the photo of Y you looked at that night completely from your head, can you identify the person in court today known as Y as the runner?”
At this question, Officer Pullover gets it, and he answers in the affirmative. Y’s lawyer is obviously nonplussed by this exchange, and, so on cross-examination, he asks Officer Pullover if it’s really possible for the officer to totally excise the photo from his mind when he’s thinking about whether it’s Y he actually saw running from the car that night near the Taco Bell. The officer graciously answers in the negative.
The officer completes his testimony and is thanked by the judge. No more witnesses are called. The prosecutor makes bland arguments as to why the elements of the charged offenses have been met at a sufficient level as to hold the defendants for a future trial. The driver’s lawyer makes bland arguments as to why her client should not be bound over for trial.
Y’s lawyer comments that the officer’s in-court identification of Y seems both suggestive and suspect (pun only somewhat intended). The heights are off, the weights are off, and the rest of the officer’s description of the runner is so lacking in detail as to be nearly wholly useless. Nevertheless, Y’s lawyer refrains from arguing the point too strenuously, knowing that the judge, at this stage of the game, has probably heard enough to hold Y for trial.
Y’s lawyer does not anticipate the ultimate portion of the prosecutor’s response to his argument, however. “Your Honor, finally, it stands to reason that when Y was getting out of the car that night, he was hunched over – as one would be when exiting a car – and this accounts for the officer being somewhat off in his estimation of the runner’s height.”
Ignoring for the moment the correctness of describing the difference between 6’2” and 5’6” as being “somewhat off” when talking about a person’s height, Y’s lawyer cocks his head and thinks for a second or two about the DA’s statement. Indeed, as the prosecutor’s words crystallize in his head, Y’s lawyer begins to nod knowing his argument is only being bolstered.
When the prosecutor finishes blathering, the judge launches into his disquisition. Of course, he holds to answer both defendants, declaring that the case is fit for them to stand trial. On the prosecutor’s final point, the judge fully agrees, forgiving any discordance in Officer Pullover’s height description of the runner vis-a-vis Y’s actual height: “The fact that the person who exited that car and ran was most probably hunched over as the officer viewed him tends to account for any difference between the officer’s description of the runner’s height and Y’s actual height.”
In that instant of almost laughable illogic, it goes unremarked that if this argument is given its weight, if this hunched-over detail that was never entered into evidence actually was the fact of the matter, it would probably mean that the runner that night in the Taco Bell parking lot was even taller than 6’2”, putting his height that much farther away from Y’s actual 5’6” stature.
Oh, yeah, mistaken identification is far and away the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the USA.
Ahh, justice. Sweet, sweet justice.