A police officer won $500,000 for being falsely accused of writing a bogus ticket. A man claimed his ticket for using a cell phone was retaliation for a complaint about the police officer’s own cell phone use. The dispute made local TV news before cell phone records cast doubt on the accuser’s story.
If I were on the jury I might have awarded $20,000, but I’d want the same courtesy from the justice system if I were falsely accused.
For the rest of us, proving our innocence is not a victory. A few years ago the Mayor of Boston announced that city schools would not hire anybody who had been arrested. Police chiefs can see my permanent record if I apply for a gun permit, and any excuse will do to turn me down. Pulled over by the side of the road I’ll be judged based on how many times I’ve been pulled over before. To quote a traffic court judge, where there’s smoke there’s fire. If you win that judge is liable to fine you anyway — in some states a winning driver still has to pay “court costs.”
This isn’t the sort of problem that upsets insiders — police, lawyers, judges, and politicians. They have several layers of protection. To start, so-called “professional courtesy” means they’re less likely to be accused in the first place. If accused, they can get their tickets fixed. They also get special treatment in court. Sometimes that’s by statute, if laws offer sovereign immunuty or indemnify police for civil rights violations. Sometimes that’s in case law, like the qualified immunity doctrine. And sometimes judges see things differently depending on who the parties are. One of my least favorite appeals court cases allowed a lawyer to have a restraining order erased from her record, contrary to statute, because it was interfering with her job prospects.
If you manage to clear all the legal hurdles, whatever you win is not likely to come out of the officer’s own pocket. That’s why traffic court has a reputation for dishonesty. Abuse of power comes with little risk.
I’m not sympathetic when police come out from behind their shields to be victims. Half a million dollars 12% interest is a lot of money for a few minutes on local TV. It’s not even the biggest award I know of. A judge won $2 million because he got hate mail after a reporter unfairly portrayed him as soft on crime.
At least WFXT was willing to air the story. The plaintiff’s lawyer admitted he had no case against the TV station. In America, reporting about the government is protected speech. The next accusation against a police officer might be true, and we need that one to be on the air.
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