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Charles L. Waechter - The Premiere Criminal Defense Firm

Mistakes of law and mistakes of fact in criminal investigations, P.1

One interesting aspect of the Freddie Gray case, and one which hasn’t been discussed as much as the racial and constitutional issues , is the fact that it was a supposed weapons crime that led to or largely contributed to the incident. As Baltimore readers may already know, the case involved an admittedly outdated municipal law prohibiting the possession of a switchblade.

While the law prohibits the possession of switchblade knives, the police report in the Freddie Gray case indicated that the knife was not actually a switchblade, but rather a “spring assisted, one hand opening knife.” State’s attorney Maryland Mosby has since made it clear that the knife was in fact legal under Maryland law. 

Although the wisdom of the law could certainly be questioned, what is of more interest to us is the fact that Gray’s death may not even have occurred if it wasn’t for the arresting officers’ mistaken assumption that Gray’s knife was illegal when it actually was not. While this may be an overly simplistic way of viewing the case, it does raise the issue of what consequences there are when law enforcement officers make mistakes as to the law they are enforcing or as to the facts of the situation with which they are dealing. This is no small issue, as these controversial police cases have shown—the life of a criminal suspect can stand or fall based on a police officer’s assumptions.

What if an officer arrests and charges an individual on the assumption that they are breaking the law, when the officer simply failed to conduct a thorough investigation? Similarly, what happens when an officer has a mistaken understanding of the law—due to a misunderstanding or misapplication, or laziness—and makes an arrest based on that mistaken understanding?

One answer is that all of this will hopefully be sorted out in the criminal process, and that the charges will end up being dropped if a criminal offense did not actually occur. That may be true in some cases, but what about cases where other charges come up that are unrelated to the officer’s initial assumptions?

In our next post, we’ll talk about this issue. 

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