When a Suspect Becomes a Photo Op
Washington, DC (March 3, 1999) -- “‘Perp walks’ are offensive to any conceivable notion of justice in America and to the Constitution that underlies our justice system. This self-serving, police practice of parading citizens under arrest — alleged “perpetrators” — before photographers and TV cameras destroys their presumption of innocence. Police departments across the country should cease and desist immediately,” Larry Pozner, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) said today.
Manhattan Federal judge Allen Schwartz last week allowed a defamation lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages to go forward against the New York City police department following a “perp walk” of an apartment house doorman suspected of burglary. A petty larceny charge was later dropped, but the plaintiff, John Lauro, Jr., suffered humiliation and harm to his reputation as a result. In light of the judge’s ruling, the NYPD has suspended the practice, and NACDL calls on other municipal, state and federal law enforcement agencies to quickly follow suit.
“These staged ‘photo-ops’ serve no purpose but to inflate the egos of arresting officers by degrading the citizen in their control. The police get to show off their cunning in nabbing the bad guy,” Pozner said. While prisoner transfers though public areas are sometimes unavoidable, perp walks are staged events solely to benefit the media, often explicitly at the request of a newspaper or TV police reporter. In the incident which precipitated the New York lawsuit , Mr. Lauro was already in custody when, upon a media request, he was hauled out of the police station to a patrol car, driven around the block, and walked back into the police station for the benefit of local TV news crews.
Perhaps the most infamous example of a perp walk gone wrong occurred the morning of Nov. 24, 1963, when JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was paraded through a crowd of reporters and other spectators in the basement of Dallas police headquarters. Local club owner Jack Ruby, apparently enraged by the killing of the president, shot the prisoner in the abdomen, killing him.
“Citizens under arrest — many of whom prove to be innocent — are not trophies to be bagged and mounted,” Pozner said. “Treating them as such is disgraceful and counter to everything our justice system stands for. We are not a jungle society. When you have this kind of unconstitutional invasion of privacy and an innocent arrestee is exonerated, how is he to get his reputation back?”
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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.