Procedures must be followed, but we can't be fanatical about it.
Police have forever complained about suspects getting off on a technicality. Officers spend countless hours amassing evidence and building a case, only to watch in dismay as some judge sets the accused free because an “i” wasn’t dotted or a “t” wasn’t crossed. Somebody wasn’t read his rights in a timely manner. There was a minor flaw in a search warrant. There was no real probable cause for a stop-and-frisk. How can the public have faith in the criminal justice system when such travesties occur?
It is more than a little ironic, then, that the latest failed attempt to get a case tossed on a technicality was instituted by a police officer’s defense team. Suspended Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer David Bisard, accused of having twice the legal blood alcohol limit when he crashed his police cruiser into three motorcycles, killing one cyclist and critically injuring two others. He wanted two vials of his blood dismissed as evidence because the blood draw for one vial didn’t follow IMPD protocols, and the second vial sat unrefrigerated in a police property room for five months before being tested.
The case was moved to Allen County because of pretrial publicity, and Superior Court Judge John Surbeck has ruled that both vials are admissible. That doesn’t mean Bisard’s claim that contaminated, untrustworthy evidence has compromised the entire investigation is a doomed defense case. His attorneys will still be able to argue that officials’ mistakes have left the state without conclusive proof of an impaired condition.
But Surbeck’s ruling does mean the public will see a trial based on substantive issues instead of mere technicalities, and that is a welcome outcome.
Those technicalities are there for a reason, of course. Our criminal justice system is based on a presumption of innocence that the state must demolish for a conviction. Insisting on strict compliance with procedure is a way to keep the state from taking shortcuts to that demolition. It is important not just for the cases at hand but to instill confidence in the pubic for all the cases to come. We must believe that if we are ever accused, there will be no shortcuts.
But fanatical devotion to procedure to the point that all common sense is lost can create a lack of confidence as well. Never mind all those technicalities, observers will think, can we please just talk about whether the accused really did what the state says he did?
It is indeed a fine line to walk, and we dare not stop paying attention to how it is walked.