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How being grilled by a criminal defense attorney can help officers write better police reports

Take the time needed to prepare the type of descriptive arrest report that will permit you to remember the incident

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Don’t write that you felt that the driver was a DUI; explain why you think so!

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By Robert S. Reiff, Esquire

You have all been there. You respond to a call over the radio of an incident that requires police assistance. After you arrive, you see that a criminal offense has occurred, you investigate the matter and you make an arrest. You later prepare and process the incessant paperwork that your department requires of you and you then go back into service to respond to the next call (and the call after that) that you receive.

You don’t think about that arrest very much; after all, you just don’t have the time to linger on your arrests. You need to get back into service. And in the days, weeks and months that follow, it becomes a faint memory, a blur.

Then you receive a notice in the mail that you have to go to court regarding the arrest that you can barely remember. The notice of court tells you that you are needed to testify at a suppression motion or at a trial. So you put on your best uniform and you go over to the courthouse. The prosecuting attorney is juggling a few hundred cases and has no time to “prep” you for your testimony other than to hand you your arrest report and perhaps, to let you know what the hearing is about. Now you are on your own. Good luck!

If you then take the stand and undergo cross-examination from a good attorney, one who is experienced and prepared and who knows what they are doing, the experience may be about as comfortable as a root canal!

What can you take from being grilled by that experienced and prepared defense attorney? That you had better take the extra time needed to prepare the type of descriptive arrest report that will permit you to remember the incident. That you need to flesh out the facts and use descriptive words and phrases that will paint a picture for you to remember. Not conclusions! Leave that to the lawyers and the judge to fight over. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Dragnet’s great Sgt. Joe Friday used to say.

Don’t write that you felt that the driver was a DUI; explain why you think so! I saw this and this and then that. Use descriptive words and phrases. You don’t have to write a novel to write a report that is clear, concise and descriptive! Here are some examples of descriptive wording for your police reports: [1]

  • “The driver had the fruity odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his breath and person.”
  • “The defendant’s eyes were so bloodshot that there was very little white to them.”
  • “The driver stumbled as he exited the door from his car.”
  • “The driver staggered on the flat and paved roadway when I asked him to walk back with me to my patrol car.”

I have discovered in my many years of practice that there are several “magic” words that can be used in cross-examination. These are words that I can use to show that the witness did not do their job or that their testimony should not be relied upon. What are some of these magic words? Here’s a few to memorize:

  • Assumed
  • Ignored
  • Failed
  • Attempted
  • Contaminated

So ask yourself when you are writing your report: What have I assumed? What have I ignored? What have I failed to write about or to do? What did I only attempt to do or what did I not do? And did I do anything to contaminate the integrity of my investigation?

Hopefully, this is a start. Good writing!


1. Of course, what your write must be true! These are examples of descriptions that I have seen used. The absolute worst thing you can do is to use descriptive wording that is untrue because it doesn’t take much for a good defense attorney to show that you are lying or massaging the truth! And once they show that, the case and quite possibly your career are done.

NEXT: How to write organized and concise police reports

About the author

Robert Reiff is a board-certified criminal defense attorney licensed to practice in Florida and New York who has been practicing law since 1983. He specializes in handling DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide and DUI offenses. Bobby is the author of “Florida DUI Law,” which is a part of the LexisNexis Practice Guide series and the 5th edition of “Drunk Driving and Related Vehicular Offenses,” which was also published by the LEXIS Law Publishing Company. He is on the editorial board of the DWI Law & Science Journal and is a frequent lecturer and author on topics involving the defense of alcohol-related offenses. Contact him at