Police Opinions on the Law Are Not Admissible
You know what they say about opinions, right? Everybody’s got one. The police are no exception, especially here in Orlando. Cops give their opinion as to the speed a vehicle is traveling, they give their opinion that a green leafy substance is, in fact, marijuana–and the list goes on and on and on. But today, we’re turning our attention to police interrogations. We all know that police are legally entitled to lie to a suspect during an investigation, and hey, the government lies to us all the time, so it’s not like I’m telling you kids Santa isn’t real. But with many police interrogations being recorded and played for the jury, these recorded statements sometimes contain opinions that are shouldn’t be heard by anyone….
So, what happens when a detective starts telling a defendant that “hey buddy, that’s not self-defense, that’s not a legal defense” etc etc. Sure, the jury can hear an officer’s lies in order to get a suspect to talk, but should they be allowed to hear an officer’s opinion on matters of law?
For the first time, a Florida court addressed just such a situation in Odeh v. State, 36 F.L.W. D1510 (4th DCA 7/13/2011). Defendant/store clerk Odeh was found guilty of attempted first degree murder after shooting an irate customer who first threatened to go get a gun and shoot up the place. Odeh didn’t feel like waiting around to see the threat take place, so he followed the customer outside, and when the customer reached into his pocket, he shot him. During Odeh’s interrogation, law enforcement repeatedly informed him that his actions did not constitute “self-defense”.
The Fourth DCA found that it was error for the trial court to allow the jury to hear the detective’s opinion regarding self-defense, stating that “[l]aw enforcement officers have never been considered to be legal experts in a court proceeding. However, a juror may reasonably assume an officer has some training in criminal law and therefore can properly opine as to the legal merits of a defense to a crime. Allowing an improper opinion by law enforcement officer on a matter of law encourages an improper assumption on the part of the jury that the officer’s opinion is legally correct”. Id.
The problem for Odeh here is that, even though the court found that it was error to admit the officer’s legal opinion on self-defense, the error was not substantial enough to warrant reversal of his conviction. As you know, had Odeh paid any attention to me from the beginning, there never would have been a discussion with police. I’ll keep saying it till I’m blue in the face–you have the right to remain silent, and anything you say will be misquoted and used against you later. Always call a defense attorney before speaking with detectives. Always.