There is a really great post at a public defender outlining basic facts about the criminal justice system that most people simply don’t understand it. Go read it. Good stuff, right?
The criminal justice system is far from perfect or correct all the time. At every step in the process, police and judges have to make decisions, sometimes ill-informed, sometimes wrong. Sometimes the facts are fuzzy, and opinions can differ, even after cases are adjudicated.
Guilty or Not Guilty is a Binary Decision, but the Truth of “Guilt” is Always on a Continuum
When the Supreme Court reaches a 5-4 decision, then that’s the decision, and the case is over. Does that mean it was right? Just one person nudged in a different direction across a thin line would have brought a completely different outcome. But in big legal decisions, countless people’s lives can be affected by that one difference.
It’s the same fine line in criminal court, with a lot less brainpower and deliberation put into the process. And in a district court misdemeanor or felony criminal case, a single person’s life is radically altered by tough calls that often could have gone either way.
Not Everyone Who Is Arrested is Actually Guilty
This is a basic concept that people should understand if they take a second to think about it (but of course they don’t).
Cops are human, make mistakes, use poor judgment, and sometimes just get angry and arrest people of whom they are suspicious. But they do this knowing they are not the last word on guilt or innocence. They can and do just decide to arrest people and let the courts sort out the facts.
And think about this: if everyone that was arrested was always guilty, we wouldn’t need courts, judges, or a criminal justice system. Cops could just haul people off to jail, look up the statute, and set a timer for the penalty until they can be released.
But no one wants a system like that for obvious reasons.
Not Everyone Who Pleads Guilty is Actually Guilty
True for all the reasons outlined in the post, and more. In drunk driving cases, people take a plea because the system makes fighting cases very difficult. A person can have a great chance to beat the case at trial, but it’s much easier to eat the penalty if they can get their driver’s license back, and get back to their lives.
Taking away a person’s ability to drive while waiting 6 months or more for an OUI trial is just a complete deal-breaker for many people. If you need to drive to keep your job and not lose your house, then you can’t fight the case, period. That sucks, but it is the truth.
Constitutional Protections Are Not “Technicalities”, They Are Our Highest Guiding Principles
If someone gets pulled over, and the police begin an illegal search and find 2 pounds or marijuana and $5000 in $20 bills, they are NOT GUILTY. Because the cops aren’t allowed to search you without justification or a warrant.
We don’t want police to be able to search people for no reason. The process and our rights are much more important than finding people who maybe did something illegal, and that’s how it should be.
Not testifying against yourself isn’t dodging the facts, it is another Constitutional protection for good reason. What evidence is presented and how it is gathered is incredibly important.
“Not Guilty” is not the same as “Innocent”
Not guilty simply means that there was insufficient evidence to prove that someone did something.
When you read about an awful criminal case in the news, you can have your opinion, and feel in your gut completely certain that that awful person did something wrong. Maybe you are even right, but it doesn’t matter.
The facts as presented are the only thing that matters in a court of law. Again, for good reason.
ANYONE Could be Charged with a Crime, and You Really Want All these Protections
If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time or mistaken for someone else, of falsely accused by a crazy or vindictive person, you could be on trial fighting for your life. Anyone can be arrested and charged with a crime, over nothing.
It happens. All the time. There are people in jail right now who literally did nothing wrong. There are people in jail who made mistakes, t should never have been convicted. There are people who’ve been released after decades from bad DNA or other tainted evidence that proves they couldn’t have done what they were charged with.
You aren’t so special and perfect, you’ve just been privileged, and not had that kind of bad luck. Good for you! It probably will never happen, and I hope it doesn’t. But it will happen to someone.
And that person wants and deserves every technicality and legal defense that can be mustered.
You could be charged with a heinous crime you didn’t commit, and be found not guilty due to some of these “technicalities”. And many people will think you did it. But you beat the case, thanks to a few basic protections afforded you in our often flawed criminal justice system.