Going to court isn’t fun – especially if there are police investigations involved. Testifying is part of our civic duty if we have witnessed the commission of a crime. Still, the prospect of taking the stand, giving evidence, and being scrutinized can be intimidating. It doesn’t have to be, however. In this article, we’ll go over the basics about testifying in court as a witness, and what to expect.
What Is the Process of a Police Investigation?
There are many steps in the investigative process. When a crime is reported, the police will first attend and try to ascertain whether an offense has in fact appeared to have been committed. If they believe that the incident merits investigation, they will continue the fact-finding process. The police have a number of investigation procedures and techniques. If there is a crime scene, police will scour it for physical evidence. They will speak to potential witnesses at the scene or who are suggested to them, and try to get formal statements detailing what they know.
Police investigations are pretty organic, with police pursuing leads that may arise from physical evidence, witness information, or other knowledge. These leads may turn up more physical evidence, additional witnesses, or other avenues to look into. The police investigation procedure follows internal guidelines and standard operating practices, but it should be adaptable enough to yield results. When the police feel that they have enough evidence to take to court, they will bring the file to the prosecution. If the decision is made to lay charges, it becomes a court matter. People also ask if an investigation can continue when the case goes to court. It can. In fact, in some cases, ongoing investigation might actually exonerate the accused, which would change the outcome of the proceedings.
What Is a Witness in an Investigation?
There are a number of different circumstances for which you can be a witness in a police investigation apart from witnessing the actual crime. You may have witnessed a fight between the accused and the victim weeks before an assault or murder, and your evidence is going to go to motive. You may be an important alibi witness for the defense. You might be an expert in a particular scientific field and asked to explain to the court how and why a certain technique is reliable.
What Happens After a Police Investigation?
There are a few options as to what happens after a police investigation. For instance:
- The police could decide not to pursue charges.
- The police could recommend charges, but the prosecution feels that there is very little prospect for a conviction. The matter could end there, or the prosecution could direct the police to conduct further investigation.
- The prosecution could indict (bring charges), and the accused could plead guilty. After a guilty plea, there may be a sentencing hearing to determine the appropriate punishment for the accused.
- The prosecution could indict, and the accused claims innocence. In this case, the matter will go to trial. The nature and seriousness of the charges will determine what kind(s) of hearings are conducted.
If charges are laid, the accused will get a copy of the police report and any other relevant evidence, including forensic reports, surveillance documents, wiretap authorizations, and more. Everything that is considered relevant is to be provided to the accused, even if it exonerates the accused.
People also ask what information the accused gets about the witnesses in the investigation. Can the accused see witness statements? The answer is yes, although the timing may be determined by the prosecution if there is concern about the witnesses’ safety. Every accused has the right to know and to challenge the evidence.
Police Investigations in Court
Police investigations at this point are mainly to find supplementary evidence or because something of interest has turned up. Whether it is a full trial or a hearing before a grand jury to decide whether or not to proceed to trial, the prosecution takes the court through the events of the investigation and demonstrates how the evidence supports the accused’s guilt. Witnesses are needed at every stage. Some of the most common witnesses are as follows:
- Every court exhibit must be authenticated and validated in order to be entered. If it’s a photograph, they will want to get confirmation from the photographer, for example, so the court knows the evidence is genuine.
- With things like forensics evidence, the court will need to be satisfied that nobody broke the “chain of custody” – that the evidence was only touched by authorized personnel and always accounted for.
- Police usually take the stand to paint the full picture of the investigation and crime to the court. They will outline how the matter came to their attention, steps they took, observations they made, research they did, witnesses they talked to, interviews with the suspect, and so on.
- If there is some political, historical, or cultural practice that needs explaining, the court may hear from an expert in that field.
- Where there is an issue about what kind of person the accused – or someone else – is, there may be “character witnesses” called.
Dos and Don’ts in Court as a Witness
Because the stakes are so high in criminal court, testifying is a very big deal. People often ask what to do as a witness in court. People also ask what a witness should never do with their testimony, or what you should not say in court. Here are some important guidelines:
- Always tell the truth. Perjury (lying under oath) is a serious crime.
- Stay calm and collected when you testify. Prior to you testifying, the side that is calling you as a witness will likely have practiced going through your testimony with you to make sure you are comfortable and come across as credible. The opposing side’s lawyer may be belligerent, even insulting, with you during cross-examination. This is to try to make you have an outburst or to discredit you. Try not to take it personally. Just as you have a job to do – to tell the court what you know – the lawyers have their jobs, too.
- Do not talk to anyone apart from the lawyer on the side calling you about your testimony. If it looks like you are colluding with anyone on your testimony, it could seriously affect your credibility. You must also never compare notes with other witnesses. Not only could this taint the testimonies, but in most cases, the judge will also make an exclusion order to prevent witnesses from doing just that.
Testifying in court and being a witness in a police investigation doesn’t have to be scary. You are telling the police and the court what you know, and by doing so, you are doing your part to make the justice system work. Read up on other legal and crime-related topics on our resources page.