C.J. Marshall: Significa: Innocent until proven guilty
This past week, a story appeared in The Review in which a Canton resident voiced his concerns to the borough council about perceived allegations of drug dealing in the community.
Following the resident's comments borough council members as well as the chief of police attempted to address the concerns, saying they are aware of the situation and that drug-related arrests are being made each month. Council encouraged the citizen to provide written information, so that local law enforcement and the community could work with him to address the situation. Hopefully, something will come from such civic-minded actions.
When the story appeared on The Review's website, a number of people responded by demanding to know why - if the Canton police know about drug dealing in the community - don't they take immediate action and arrest all the people involved in such activities; on the logic that doing so would quickly eliminate the problem and protect all the decent hard-working citizens in the process.
Ah, but things are just not that simple in this country. And thank God for that.
Here in the U.S., there's a system in place called due process of law. For a member of law enforcement to arrest someone, it's not enough that they simply have knowledge that a person is committing a crime. In order to make an arrest, a police officer must also be able to PROVE that a crime has been committed. And anyone involved in the legal process will tell you that knowing something and proving it are two different things in a court of law.
To obtain proof of a crime, the police must legally gather evidence related to the incident. This is done in a variety of ways. In drug-related cases, the police often used confidential informants as well as undercover officers to obtain the evidence necessary to build a case against a suspect. These people make drug purchases from the suspects, and these transactions - duly recorded and processed by the authorities - are later used when the cases come up for prosecution.
Another way the police obtain evidence of a crime is through direct observation. If a police officer sees a crime being committed, then he or she is legally obligated to stop the incident, arrest or cite the person involved, and then provide the necessary direct evidence or testimony against the defendant in a court of law. Trouble is, dealing illegal drugs is not something done out in the open - unless the perpetrators are incredibly stupid; which I admit does occur occasionally. But for the most part, police have to conduct covert operations which require more time and resources in order to build an effective case against someone accused of drug dealing.
A third option is for a citizen to come forward and willingly go on record indicating that a person they know has been selling drugs illegally. But as many police officers will tell you, this is easier said than done. Too often, the conversation usually runs something like this:
OFFICER: "So, Mr. Smith, you say that you've seen your neighbor, Mr. Jones, selling crack to kids."
MR. SMITH: "That's right, officer. I've seen him do it a number of times. He needs to be arrested to get him off the streets."
OFFICER: "All right Mr. Smith, I need you to sign an affidavit to that effect."
MR. SMITH: "Affidavit?"
OFFICER: "Yes, it's a written statement that we use when we bring a case against a defendant. If the case goes to trial, you would be required to provide testimony in court."
MR. SMITH: "I don't want to do that! Can't you just arrest him and keep my name out of this?"
No, the officer cannot. Except in special, limited circumstances, anonymous accusations are generally a no-no in a our legal system. According to the law, a person has the right to face his accuser. This helps to prevent people from being arrested and jailed on false or flimsy accusations by those with ulterior motives. In order to carry legal weight, a person must be willing to go on record and - if necessary - provide testimony against another in open court in order to obtain a conviction. Those who refuse to do so - the ones who expect the police to do all the "dirty work" while they keep their hands clean - can only expect disappointment in a legal system that is geared protect the rights of ALL individuals who come in contact with it.
The Canton police, as well as all other law enforcement officials, must follow the parameters set down by our legal system. While this system is not perfect, it has proved time and time again to be far superior to legal systems in many other countries where a person under arrest is presumed guilty, and the burden of proof is on the defendants to prove their innocence in a court of law.