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Friday, April 15, 2005

America's Funniest Home Videos. Or Not.

Remember the skepticism surrounding the arrests during the Republican National Convention? Although it seems like a long time ago, the NY Times reports developments on those arrests:

For Mr. Kyne and 400 others arrested that week, video recordings provided
evidence that they had not committed a crime or that the charges against them
could not be proved, according to defense lawyers and prosecutors.

Among them was Alexander Dunlop, who said he was arrested while going to pick up sushi.

Last week, he discovered that there were two versions of the same
police tape: the one that was to be used as evidence in his trial had been
edited at two spots, removing images that showed Mr. Dunlop behaving peacefully. When a volunteer film archivist found a more complete version of the tape and gave it to Mr. Dunlop's lawyer, prosecutors immediately dropped the charges and said that a technician had cut the material by mistake.

Seven months after the convention at Madison Square Garden, criminal charges have fallen against all but a handful of people arrested that week. Of the 1,670 cases that have run their full course, 91 percent ended with the charges dismissed or with a verdict of not guilty after trial. Many were dropped without any finding of wrongdoing, but also without any serious inquiry into the circumstances of the
arrests, with the Manhattan district attorney's office agreeing that the cases
should be "adjourned in contemplation of dismissal."

Some might argue that, hey, the justice system works pretty well since these individuals are eventually found not guilty or are cleared of charges. First, just because 91% are eventually cleared of charges does not mean that they did not act illegally. There exist evidentiary problems when arresting numerous individuals in a short time-span. The problem that I see is that when we argue that the justice system is "working" because 91% of 400 people arrested in a span of days within a small geographic location are eventually cleared of charges, we normalize the appropriateness of the procedures leading to those arrests. I haven't taken criminal procedure yet, but I recognize that there are situations in which arresting large numbers of individuals is appropriate and wise. That these procedures can be appropriate and legal does not imply that they are costless. Apart from my normalization hypothesis, they create direct costs on the legal system, on the individuals found not guilty or cleared of charges, and opportunity costs in the preceding two categories as well as in patrolling other areas.

And, seriously, imagine being the guy cleared by a freelance videographer's unedited version of a tape the DA had planned to use against you at trial.


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