The New Jersey Supreme Court has barred law enforcement officers from destroying notes they take while interviewing witnesses, victims, and suspects, saying defense attorneys should be allowed to view them so they can challenge official police reports, the Newark Star-Ledger reports. The decision, by a divided court, addresses the decades-old struggle of defense attorneys looking for possible errors, omissions, or inconsistencies that could help their clients. When asked for their notes, officers often say it's their department's policy to destroy them once the official report is written.
The ruling is the latest of a number of decisions critical of cops' note-taking procedures. For the first time, the court imposed sanctions and includes notes about officers' observations at a crime scene as part of the list of documents that can't be destroyed. “We need not take much time to state, once more, that law enforcement officers may not destroy contemporaneous notes of interviews and observations at the scene of a crime after producing their final reports,” temporary justice Edwin Stern wrote for the majority. “Logically, because an officer's notes may be of aid to the defense, the time has come to join other states that require the imposition of 'an appropriate sanction' whenever an officer's written notes are not preserved.” Said Jon Shane of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “What you're talking about is accountability. That's what the Supreme Court is imposing on policing. It's saying you can't have policing in a half-hearted manner. It has to be in a systematic manner.”