Many criminal cases come down to the word of a police officer versus the word of the accused. Frequently, in cases such as drug possession and traffic offenses, an officer’s testimony is the only evidence. When the judge or jury must decide who to believe, they almost always side with the officer. Utah juries seem to be particularly trusting of the Utah police. After all, they reason, the officer has no reason to lie, while the accused is trying to avoid punishment. That logic would be sound if it the assumptions were true, but police have incentives to lie, just like everyone else.
If you think about your own job or social circle, you’ll realize that people lie for many different reasons. It doesn’t take much encouragement to make certain people lie. You likely know someone who lies just to avoid looking dumb or to sound more interesting. Imagine if that person could lie to receive promotions, pay raises, or other accolades. Then imagine that nearly everyone would believe that person, regardless of how improbable the story, simply by virtue of holding a particular job title. A courtroom and a solemn oath is unlikely to keep that dishonest person from committing perjury.
Just like everyone else, the Utah police lie for many different reasons. This point was driven home a couple weeks ago when a Utah judge ruled a Utah Highway Patrol officer was not credible. Lisa Steed, the UHP officer, was even awarded the title of “UHP Trooper of the Year” in 2009 so even highly decorated officers can perjure themselves. In hindsight, it’s not clear why Officer Steed felt compelled to lie. Her stories were often improbable and far-fetched, and yet judges and juries believed her.
A jury must make some determination as to who is lying and who is telling the truth. If an officer’s testimony is the only evidence or the primary evidence against the accused, juries absolutely need to view the officer’s testimony skeptically. And if an officer testifies that a defendant did something improbable or contrary to common sense, a jury should find the defendant “not guilty.”