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Why an Officer's Word Might Mean More Than Yours

Before fighting that traffic ticket, read Legal Lad's take on 'innocent until proven guilty,' and witness credibility.

The following is a transcript of "The Legal Lad's Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life," a podcast from QuickAndDirtyTips.com. The audio program is available via RSS feed here and at TheStreet.com's podcast home page.

Today, I will discuss two topics: the presumption of innocence, and witness credibility. These two topics are implicated in a question from one of my favorite listeners, Nick:

I was recently given a parking ticket while parked in a legal space. I contested the ticket at town hall and got it reversed, but I worried about having to go to court. It seems that in the case of a ticket, defendants are guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent. My mom, who has taken tickets to court, says that if it just comes down to your word against the officer's, the court will usually trust the officer. Isn't this a reversal of the principle of "innocent until proven guilty?" Or is an officer's word considered proof?

Innocence and Reasonable Doubt

Thanks again, Nick. First, I will address the presumption of innocence. Many countries have enacted laws, or expressly provided in their constitutions that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. But, the U.S. Constitution does not expressly state this maxim. Rather, scholars posit that it has been implied from the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments' guarantee of due process of law, and the Sixth Amendment's general guarantee to a fair trial.

The Supreme Court has also interpreted this presumption of innocence to go hand in hand with the prosecution's burden to prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, assume you are on trial for stealing a car and driving it across state lines. Before the trial, you are still technically not guilty because the government has not proven your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. At trial, if the government brings forth evidence that you stole the car, but neglects to bring forth evidence that you drove the car across state lines, then the government has failed to prove you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence remains, and you are found not guilty.

The "More Likely Than Not" Standard

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Next, let's turn to Nick's question about the parking ticket. First, please note that not all states consider minor traffic offenses to be criminal matters and those states do not require the stringent "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. Some states consider parking tickets a civil penalty and use a "preponderance" standard. Under that standard, the government only needs to show that it is more likely than not that you committed the traffic offense. Regardless of the standard, the burden remains on the government to show that you indeed committed the offense charged.

The government does this by producing evidence in the form of the police report, the ticket, the officer's testimony, photographs or other witnesses' testimony. You may try to defeat the charge against you by introducing your own evidence. Again, this may be your own testimony, photographs you take, other witnesses' testimony, etc. You may also try to show the judge or the jury that the police officer is not credible. That is, that he should not be believed. You can do this by trying to show that the officer does not remember the incident very well, or has bad eyesight or perhaps holds a personal grudge against you and only ticketed you out of spite.

Your Word Vs. a Police Officer's Word

Nick's question hits this issue squarely on the head. When the judge "usually trust

s the officer," the judge is performing a credibility analysis. The judge is deciding that the officer's version of the story is simply more believable than yours. The judge might base this on the fact that the officer is a professional who is trained in identifying violations of the law, or that the officer has no personal stake in the case like you do. While the officer's testimony is not "proof," it is evidence that the judge may consider.

If the judge decides that the officer's testimony is more credible than yours, then there exists enough evidence that you indeed violated the traffic law. The government has put forth enough evidence to meet its burden to show that you violated the law. This is not a reversal of the presumption of innocence, but rather the judge making a credibility finding.

This distinction does not make many people feel better; it still seems that you are presumed guilty. In practice, once an officer thinks you have violated a traffic rule, you are toast because it will be difficult to make the judge think you are more credible than the officer. The best way to proceed in a traffic violation case is to gather as much evidence as you can at the scene. Take photographs, ask nearby witnesses for their thoughts and take their contact information. If you can mount enough evidence, then you have a chance at discrediting the officer and winning your case.

Michael Flynn writes and records the Legal Lad articles and pocdasts. A graduate of Tufts University and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, he currently works as a research attorney for a California trial court.

Disclaimer: Please note that the legal information featured in Legal Lad articles and podcasts is presented for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, Michael Flynn's name is only being provided for authorship purposes, and not to advertise any legal services.