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‘Officers’ Failure to Appear in Court Undermines Justice’

June 14, 2024

Sandra Sandy Mayson, Quattrone Center Fellow
Sandra “Sandy” Mayson, Quattrone Center Fellow

Prof. Sandy Mayson advocates holding police departments responsible for their officers’ appearances in court.

At Law360, Sandy Mayson, Professor of Law, explains that as many as 32,000 Philadelphia cases were dismissed between 2010 and 2020 because a police officer or civilian witness failed to appear, undermining justice for aggrieved parties.

Mayson and co-authors Lindsay Graef PhD’30; Aurélie Ouss, Janice and Julian Bers assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Megan Stevenson, professor of law and economics at the University of Virginia School of Law and former Fellow at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, analyzed ten years of data from Philadelphia to quantify the scale of failures to appear by all criminal court actors.

“Police departments should take responsibility for their officers’ appearance in court,” they write. “This might require creating better notice systems, working harder to avoid scheduling conflicts, and penalizing officers who fail to appear. But it could also mean making fewer arrests for cases that officers do not feel prepared to see through the court process.”

They also urge better data collection to track officer nonappearances.

From Law360

In February, in New Mexico, the Albuquerque Police Department’s DWI Unit became the subject of a federal investigation following allegations that its officers were making money off of DWI arrests.

At least four officers allegedly colluded with a local defense attorney to get DWI cases dismissed by failing to appear in court to testify against the defendant, ostensibly in exchange for a kickback from the lawyer. As of early May, nine officers have been placed on leave in connection with the investigation.

The scandal has sparked a slew of coverage about officer failures to appear, and the poor mechanisms in place to track their court appearances.

But this is not a new problem, and it is not limited to DWI cases. Ten years of data from the Philadelphia courts and Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office reveal a striking picture: Police officers and other legal actors fail to appear in court quite frequently. And, as demonstrated by the Albuquerque scandal, when people don’t show up for court, cases get dismissed.

Until recently, attention around court absenteeism, usually called failure to appear, or FTA, has almost exclusively focused on defendants.

The criminal justice system has many intensive and invasive policies to ensure that defendants show up in court, including cash bail, pretrial detention and pretrial supervision. The rationale for these policies is that the courts can’t operate, and justice can’t be served, if defendants don’t appear.

But this argument misses a critical fact. Most of those who fail to appear are not defendants, but the other actors necessary for criminal proceedings: police officers, civilian witnesses and private defense attorneys… .

Mayson researches and writes in the fields of criminal law, constitutional law, and legal theory, with a focus on the role of preventive restraint in the criminal legal system. Her academic work draws on her experience as a trial lawyer at Orleans Public Defenders, where she represented indigent clients in criminal proceedings and trained public defenders on immigration-sensitive defense practice.

Mayson is also engaged in pretrial law reform and served as the Associate Reporter for the Uniform Law Commission’s Pretrial Release & Detention Act. She co-authors amicus briefs in lawsuits challenging aspects of money-bail systems and advises public and private stakeholders on pretrial reform initiatives.

Read the full piece at Law360.