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Don't Rule Out Interviewing That Drunk Witness!
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Police officers, criminal investigators, prosecuting attorneys, and even jurors are always looking for that 'credible,' or reliable witness; that person whose statement appears to be unimpeachable. Naturally, we typically assume that such people are those who are lucid, sober, and seemingly have no reason to lie. But they’re not the only ones who can bolster a case!

 

Suppose, for example, you are the responding officer to a bar fight that caused some serious injury to the victim by the suspect, and the only other person who was in the parking lot to witness the incident at the time was a rather intoxicated young lady who was waiting out front for a ride. You begin speaking to her and realize that she has a few more that simply “one too many.” Should you turn your focus to hoping for a confession from the suspect or relying solely on the statement of the victim, and skip taking her statement? Perhaps you should take her information, and interview her once she sobers up. What to do? Quite the dilemma.

 

Or is it? While some studies have reported that intoxicated witnesses may produce less accurate facial composites in situations where the suspect has fled the scene, one new study appearing recently in the Scientific American, entitled “Drunk Witnesses Remember A Surprising Amount” noted that actually interviewing the inebriated witness while still on the scene has a higher likelihood of producing accurate information than waiting until they are sober.  In addition, the study also found that some aspects of intoxicated people’s recollections were not all that different from sober ones.

 

These results are in line with some previous research studies, but are not always shared with criminal justice practitioners. Occasionally, reports summarizing research like this appears in trade magazines like Police or Law & Order, but not everyone reads these types of things. Given the significant debate over Eyewitness Testimony more generally, these research findings might, at the very least, make us more interested in what drunk witnesses have to say.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

 

  1. Not all future or current law enforcement practitioners attend/have attended college. Knowing that, how might we best devise a specific training plan to inform practitioners of important research findings such as these? In a small group, outline a specific plan for doing so. Be sure to choose a particular practitioner audience (police officer, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc.), and adapt your plan accordingly.
  2. If more law enforcement officers began the practice of interviewing intoxicated witnesses immediately at the scene rather than waiting days or weeks later, what may be some of the positive results? Do you see potential cons to adopting this approach? Support your responses to both with specific examples whenever possible.
  3. Watch this short video clip:
    1. In this situation, what do YOU believe the credibility of this witness might be? Explain.
    2. Did this investigation follow the recommendations of the research article discussed in this post? Discuss your answer in terms of the potential positive or negative impacts on the case as a result.