In 1997, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Ricciuti v. N.Y.C. Transit Authority held that law enforcement officers who fabricate evidence against a criminal suspect are liable for damages under the federal civil rights statute. The constitutional principle established by the Ricciuti court was this:
“… no arrest, no matter how lawful or objectively reasonable, gives an arresting officer or his fellow officers license to deliberately manufacture false evidence against an arrestee. To hold that police officers, having lawfully arrested a suspect, are then free to fabricate false [information] at will, would make a mockery of the notion that Americans enjoy the protection of due process of the law and fundamental fairness.”
License to Manufacture Evidence
Please read that again… Hidden in the Constitutional principal is the reality that there are police across this country who still believe that if they make a lawful arrest, they have a license to “manufacture false evidence” to provide to the prosecution in order to convict a criminal defendant.
Undercover Agent Fabricated Statement
This disturbing fact was again illustrated in yet another case decided on September 30, 2016 by the Second Circuit, Garnett v. Uncover Officer C0039 (”UC 39”), in which an undercover officer fabricated his “observations,” included a inculpatory statement, that led to the arrest of Kwane Garnett. It was a “buy and bust” drug deal that resulted in the trial of Garnett eight months later and an acquittal by a jury.
Garnett immediately filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that UC 39 fabricated the observations about the “buy and bust” deal that led to his arrest and prosecution, including a statement Garnett reportedly made to the officer. A federal district court jury, after hearing all the evidence, concluded that the officer fabricated the account of his own observations and awarded Garnett one dollar in compensatory damages and $20,000 in punitive damages.
Fabricated Confession Can Support Civil Rights Lawsuit
The issue before the Second Circuit was this:
Ricciuti held that, even when there is probable cause to arrest, a police officer’s fabrication of a defendant’s confession “violates the accused’s constitutional right to a fair trial” and that such “unconscionable [police] action” can be redressed through the federal civil rights statute.
Did this mean that Ricciuti applied to a case where a police officer fabricates information about “his or her own observations of alleged criminal activity which he or she conveys to prosecutors?”
The appeals court held that it does.
Ends Justify Means? Not in America…
We recently posted a piece about FBI investigations often utilizing illegal evidence-gathering techniques to build cases against criminal suspects based on the “end justifies the means” philosophy.
The integrity of a criminal prosecution begins with law enforcement investigations conducted by federal or state authorities. Citizens, and non-citizens, in this country suspected of criminal activity have not only a reasonable expectation but a fundamental due process right to have law enforcement investigations conducted both lawfully and ethically. It is disturbing to us when a federal court must intercede to tell state law enforcement officers that just because they have probable cause to arrest a suspect does not give them the legal authority to lie, or otherwise manufacture evidence, about the suspect’s role in criminal activity.
Eight Months in Jail Based on Fabricated Testimony
In the Garnett case, a jury did not believe the officer’s fabricated observations about Kwane Garnett’s in the “buy and bust” drug deal. Garnett spent eight months in jail awaiting the trial that ultimately acquitted him. Most criminal defendants either actually or marginally framed by the police are not as lucky. They spend years, even decades, behind bars before their exoneration occurs—but, tragically, there have been scores more of innocent people who died in prison because they did not have either the ability or means to establish their innocence.
The police did this to them.
While we applaud the federal jury’s willingness to award Garnett $20,000 in punitive damages against the corrupt, lying UC 39, we feel strongly that the amount should have been far more. There should be a higher price tag for police misconduct involving manufactured evidence or lying about a suspect’s role in alleged criminal activity.