Saturday, May 5, 2012

Those clever cops

While thinking about what might ensue at the crime scene described in the May 1 blogpost, I thought that maybe Sheriff Steve Martinez would figure that that the taped-off scene would attract not only the press but also the curious—including, maybe, the doer of the deed. Part of forensic pathology is for a perpetrator to revisit the scene, partly for his own secret jollies but also to see how the cops are doing.

So Steve enlists the tribal cops from the Ojibwa reservation in neighboring Gogebic County to come up in civilian clothes, bearing point-and-shoot cameras, and surreptitiously snap photos of everybody who comes to gawk. Two of the cops are assigned to photograph the license plates of the cars the gawkers drive in. Perhaps a photo might lead to the killer. It's a long shot, Steve reasons, but one worth taking.

But I wondered if perhaps privacy laws might be violated, that if they were perhaps a smart defense counsel could get his client off on a technicality. So I asked a veteran prosecutor if Steve would be treading on anyone's rights to have undercover LEOs photograph onlookers and their cars at the scene.

No, said the prosecutor. The crime scene in question is a public place, and the cops are perfectly within their own rights to gather evidence in this manner.

In fact, the prosecutor said, city cops often sponsor public neighborhood meetings near crime scenes, ostensibly to reassure residents that they're doing everything humanly possible to apprehend malefactors and solve the case. But there's another reason for these apparent public relations exercises. The criminal or criminals involved sometimes attend the events just to see how the investigation is going—if it's getting closer.

The cops, the prosecutor added, typically ask all attendees to sign a guest book, and they check out the names (and often faces) afterward. If someone refuses to sign, the cops definitely will investigate that person and might even get lucky.

I never knew that. Grist for a mystery writer's mill.


  1. Good, good. I can see it shaping up. Now fill in the gaps in the five basic law enforcement questions: What, where, who, why, weapons.

  2. I may have to dig out my copies of your other Steve Martinez novels! And just wondering (as I'm re-reading my old hardback of "Zephyr" while also reading it on my new Nook Color) if you and friend Bob, the other Zephyr passenger, ever did anything about the murder on the Zephyr that the 2 of you were hatching up (with shades of Sherlock, Agatha, the Hole in the Wall gang, et al) while riding through the canyons that 20 or so years ago!