By The Honorable Earl G. Penrod
MANY AMERICANS ARE FAMILIAR with the line “just the facts, ma’am” from the classic television show “Dragnet.” Even though there is some real question as to whether Sgt. Friday ever said the specific line, the expression provides a great tip to law enforcement officers when considering how to be an effective witness in court.
The purpose of an officer’s testimony is to establish the facts of the case. Regardless of how much the officer knows, the key is what is effectively and credibly conveyed to the judge. The officer should be completely familiar with the case but understand that there may not be an opportunity to fully explain every issue and present every detail.
Even though officers are extremely well versed in the law, testimony should be presented in factual statements without legal terms and police jargon. The judge’s role is to determine what happened and then interpret and apply the law. The officer’s role is to provide the judge with the facts, not the law.
For example, when answering a question about why a driver was pulled over, the officer should explain what occurred, such as the actions of the occupants and the speed and appearance of the vehicle. Both of the following may be responsive to the question but the first statement is more effective.
“I stopped the vehicle after observing it traveling down the highway at a high rate of speed and observing an occupant throw a large black duffel-type bag out of the passenger window.”
“I pulled the driver over because I had probable cause to believe that a traffic violation had occurred and I had reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity.”
Tip to testify: just the facts, officer.
The Honorable Earl G. Penrod is a Judge of the Gibson Superior Court in Indiana.