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CONSTRUCTING CRIME - POLICE AND PROSECUTOR'S MANAGEMENT OF THE CHARGING PROCESS

NCJ Number
51466
Author(s)
W B LITTRELL
Date Published
1974
Annotation
THE PROCESS BY WHICH CRIMINAL JUSTICE OFFICIALS CONSTRUCT CHARGES FROM CIRCUMSTANCES IS EXPLORED IN A STUDY OF POLICE AND PROSECUTORS IN FAIRFIELD COUNTY, N.J.
Abstract
TO STUDY SOCIAL PROCESSES THAT RELATE POLICE AND PROSECUTORS IN THE CHARGING OF CRIMINAL COMPLAINTS, DATA WERE GATHERED FROM OFFICIAL POLICE AND COURT RECORDS, OBSERVATIONS, AND INTERVIEWS IN FAIRFIELD COUNTY AND IN THE THREE MUNICIPALITIES WITHIN THE COUNTY. THE ANALYSIS IS BASED PRIMARILY ON MATERIALS FROM THE INTERVIEWS, IN WHICH PROSECUTORS AND POLICE DISCUSSED HYPOTHETICAL SITUATIONS INVOLVING THE CHARGING OF STEALING AND DRUG ABUSE CASES. THE NATURE OF THE KNOWLEDGE THAT OFFICIALS MUST USE TO CHARGE CRIMINAL CASES IS EXAMINED, AND OFFICIALS' USE OF THIS KNOWLEDGE IS RELATED TO THE ORGANIZATION OF PROSECUTION--THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE THAT INTEGRATES POLICE AND PROSECUTORS. THE ANALYSIS SUPPORTS THE PROPOSITION THAT POLICE AGENCIES, THROUGH THEIR DETECTIVE BUREAUS, ASSUME INCREASING RESPONSIBILITY FOR LEGAL (AS DISTINGUISHED FROM PEACEKEEPING) FUNCTIONS. THIS INCREASING LEGAL RESPONSIBILITY IS A PRODUCT OF BUREAUCRATIC ORGANIZATIONS EMBODYING A CRIME CONTROL MODEL OF THE CRIMINAL PROCESS. EXAMINATION OF THE KNOWLEDGE REQUIRED TO CHARGE CASES SUPPORTS THE CONTENTION THAT OFFICIALS' BELIEF THAT ANY GIVEN CASE MIGHT GO TO TRIAL PLAYS AN IMPORTANT PART, DESPITE OFFICIALS' RECOGNITION THAT MOST CASES NEVER DO GO TO TRIAL. THE ANALYSIS ALSO POINTS TO FOUR CRITICAL AREAS IN WHICH OFFICIALS MUST DEAL WITH THE PRACTICAL PROBLEM OF VAGUENESS IN ORDER TO CHARGE CRIMINAL CASES: EVIDENCE CONSTRUCTION; WITNESS MANAGEMENT; NORM INTERPRETATION; AND THE SELECTION OF PARTICULAR OFFENSES FOR CHARGING. EXAMINATION OF THE STRUCTURE OF POLICE DETECTIVE BUREAUS SUPPORTS THE PROPOSITION THAT SOCIAL STRUCTURE TENDS TO DIFFERENTIATE AT THOSE POINTS IN AN ORGANIZATION AT WHICH VAGUENESS PRESENTS SERIOUS PRACTICAL PROBLEMS. CONFRONTED WITH SUCH PROBLEMS, OFFICIALS OFTEN RELY ON COMMON SENSE MORE THAN LAW BY EMPHASIZING CERTAIN MATTERS, IGNORING OTHERS, AND READING SHADES OF MEANING INTO FACTS. OFFICIALS' MOST IMPORTANT COMMON-SENSE PROCEDURES WERE ASSESSMENTS OF THE ARRESTEE'S CHARACTER AND THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE CRIME. OVERALL, THE FINDINGS DEMONSTRATE THAT, IN THE CHARGING PROCESS, FACTS ARE CONSTRUCTED TO FIT CRIMES AT LEAST AS MUCH AS CRIMES ARE CONSTRUCTED TO FIT FACTS. THE EXTENT TO WHICH VAGUENESS ENTERS INTO THE CHARGING PROCESS HAS IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH EMPLOYING OFFICIAL CRIME STATISTICS BASED ON THAT PROCESS. IT IS SUGGESTED THAT OFFICIAL CRIME STATISTICS ARE NOT AMENABLE TO FORMS OF RESEARCH THAT MUST ASSUME STANDARDIZATION OF UNITS OF ANALYSIS. STUDY INSTRUMENTS (INCLUDING THE HYPOTHETICAL SITUATIONS USED TO EXPLORE THE CHARGING PROCESS), A BIBLIOGRAPHY, AND SUPPORTING DATA ARE INCLUDED. (AUTHOR ABSTRACT MODIFIED--LKM)