This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
A slap on the wrist. With a feather.
That’s what two Pierce County sheriff’s deputies got Friday from the very criminal justice system they betrayed by testifying falsely under oath last year at a pretrial hearing last year.
Convicted of first-degree perjury in September, 48-year-old Rex McNicol and 36-year-old Jeff Montgomery will have to serve three weekends in jail – they can skip Christmas weekend – plus 79 days in home detention and 40 hours of community service.
Granted, McNicol and Montgomery were first-time offenders, and Superior Court Judge John Hickman’s lenient penalty was within the state’s sentencing guidelines.
But their prosecutor, assistant state attorney general Melanie Tratnik, pointed out that they were not common criminals, and their falsehoods were not common crimes. The sworn lies of police officers send ripples of damage through the legal system.
Most criminal cases stand or fall on the credibility of the police. Officers make judgments on probable cause, request search warrants, arrest suspects, gather evidence, write official reports and testify in court. The entire process assumes that the police are honest.
Kick out the stool of police integrity, and charges collapse. That’s precisely what happened here. In a child welfare case two years ago, the deputies were dispatched to a home where a convicted felon reportedly kept a rifle. They arrested him on a weapons charge. In their report, Montgomery wrote that they’d entered the felon’s house.
In court later, McNicol swore that they hadn’t gone into the house, and Montgomery backed up him. It appears that McNicol feared the evidence would be suppressed and was trying to save the case. The discrepancy between the initial report and their testimony killed the charges against the felon.
If only the harm from such police perjury cases stopped there. When the testimony of a few officers is exposed as dishonest, some members of the public will assume that most officers routinely break the rules. If enough officers discredit themselves, the result can be a widespread distrust of what happens inside the courthouse.
The only way to preserve public trust is to respond decisively to corruption. Some big cities – such as New York and New Orleans – have tolerated bad cops, to their shame.
That didn’t happen here: McNicol and Montgomery were charged, suspended, convicted and fired. The only weak link in the chain was the sentence. Regardless, their prosecution should stand as a sobering lesson for any officer who might be tempted to dispense with the rules to put a suspect in jail.