Law Enforcement's Application to Constitutional and Criminal Law - A Brief Overview
This is the third in a series of articles that briefly describe the various aspects of law and how they apply to law enforcement. Constitutional law and criminal law are, in my opinion, two of the most important to law enforcement agencies and officers. Police officers are entrusted to uphold the “law” and having a solid understanding of these particular areas of the law are of particular importance to any officer. This knowledge is primarily concentrated around an individual’s constitutional rights, on both the Federal and State level, and the criminal code set by that particular jurisdiction.
Police officers must be very familiar with these areas of the law for a countless number of reasons. Quite simply, if an officer is not familiar with, and have a thorough knowledge-base of the laws applicable to his/her jurisdiction, then it becomes extremely difficult to recognize a criminal act taking place or which section of the criminal code, if any, this potential violation applies. Without having a good grasp on this material, officers will not know or understand when it is appropriate to make a warrantless arrest or when a warrant should be obtained prior to placing someone into custody. More importantly, without a thorough understanding what actions are appropriate to take in any given situation, the officer may potentially place himself and the agency in jeopardy of civil litigation or criminal prosecution. This is especially true in high-risk situations, such as the use of force.
To violate a citizen’s constitutional rights, to make an unlawful arrest, use excessive force, commit a criminal act or allow one to continue nefarious conduct are all areas which police officers are susceptible to doing should they not be knowledgeable with these areas of law.
Officers need not be reminded that in the performance of their duties, they will be required to make a split-second decision. The choice an officer makes during these instances can and at some point will have a profound effect on him/herself, the agency, the victim and/or suspect, and the criminal justice system as a whole. Officers must make these split-second decisions keeping in mind the complexity of the federal and state constitutions, as well as the criminal statutes.
While an officer is often required to take immediate action, these actions will ultimately be reviewed and scrutinized by the agency, attorneys, and courts for weeks or months in order to determine the appropriateness of this split-second action. At the same time the media and the public will be making their own assessment and judgment. Officers know this; however second guessing themselves in lieu of this knowledge and failure to act quickly at times, specifically in a life threatening situation, can be deadly.
Most people have no idea the complexity of these situations and what the police must deal with. I can’t stress the importance of not only knowing the laws, but being able to apply them in any given situation. However; when a life is at stake whether it be an officer or a citizen, there is one simple but most important phrase familiar to every officer: “I would rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6.”