The case of on-duty Boulder police officer, Sam Carter, who shot a beloved trophy elk in the Mapleton Hill neighborhood has received consistent media attention in large part because of animal rights activists who demanded that the suffering of the elk be recognized and dignified with a serious prosecution. This week, that officer was convicted of felony counts related to the shooting and his cover-up of the shooting. News story here.
As a defense lawyer, I rarely get excited about convictions of anybody– not because the criminal justice system is not necessary, or that there aren’t some bad people out there, but because people should not be defined by their biggest mistakes. And because there is an inherent power imbalance in a criminal investigation and prosecution, a power imbalance that frequently corrupts justice in ways big and small.
But interestingly, this prosecution is in a lot of ways addressing that corruption of justice. The Boulder DA prosecuted a police officer for his abuse of his position, for lying to cover it up. Entirely separate from an illegal taking of wildlife, this defendant should not be a police officer, and if it takes a criminal conviction to ensure that, so be it.
And it matters more when a police officer lies and stages a scene or tampers with evidence. That matters more than when a working mother steals a credit card and uses it to buy $50 of groceries (which could also be charged as a felony). Lies and abuses by police officers go to the fabric of our justice system. Millions of people are currently incarcerated due to the work of police officers, and every year millions more are stopped, detained, searched, arrested, charged, and convicted with crimes big and small, with uncountable financial, career, psychological, and family hardships. So when an officer is caught lying and tampering with evidence to cover up his own workplace crime, we should all be concerned about his previous investigations of others: how many lies (big or small) and omissions were in his reports, how much were his charging decisions motivated by his sense of power rather than justice, how many shortcuts did he take, and with what consequences for those he charged?
The fact is, police officers typically receive fawning deference from prosecutors (and sometimes from courts) when their stories contradict apparent reality, and so to show a lying cop you usually need a smoking gun. But smoking guns are rare, so when they happen (as with the Boulder cop) it is in a real sense the tip of the iceberg. Criminal defense attorneys perhaps too frequently see mistakes and shortcuts as lies, but prosecutors too often turn a blind eye to, or discount evidence of, police abuse or dishonesty. And so the public rarely gets to see exactly how gritty and imperfect and occasionally awful the police can be.
This case showed one bad cop (well, more than one, actually, but the point is the same), and while he shouldn’t give the countless good and honest people in the profession a bad name, the public must remain watchful: Sam Carter was not the first cop to abuse his position, or to lie or tamper with evidence, and he won’t be the last. The public indignation over this case was partly fueled by the officer’s dishonesty and abuse of power, but the reality is the story got play because an elk was killed in Boulder by a cop. But it’s the cop’s abuse of power, his lies and the tampering that should really concern the public– not because of what he specifically did, but because of what it means is likely happening everyday, just outside of public view. We should never allow our appreciation for the hard and dangerous work of police officers to lull us into trusting complacency– we should always scrutinize and verify.