Reflections of a Vanguard Intern: A Rookie Cop, an Expert Witness, and the Sway of Police Testimony

By Fiona Davis

SACRAMENTO, CA – This past week, while assigned to monitor several departments in the Sacramento County Superior Court, I came across two contrasting examples of police testimony.

These instances of law enforcement officers—both new and experienced—taking the stand seem to showcase what impact a police witness can have in a hearing’s outcome.

On Monday, via Dept. 21’s virtual livestream, I sat in on the preliminary hearing of Joseph Bowman, who pleaded not guilty to two counts of indecent exposure.

During the incident that led to his arrest, the defendant allegedly asked a woman, walking down the streets of Elk Grove, for directions as he sat in his car, before allegedly masturbating in front of her. Although he was convicted of similar crimes just last year, he has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

While the alleged facts of Bowman’s case are eye-catching by themselves, my focus was soon drawn to the only witness called upon during the hearing.

Officer Cody Nguyen of the Elk Grove Police Department testified before the court, stating that he was dispatched to the scene of the alleged incident. From there, he interviewed Bowman’s alleged victim, and conducted an investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of the defendant.

As I watched the officer’s testimony, I was especially struck by how new he was to the job itself. When prosecuting attorney Celeena Wall asked how many years Nguyen had served as a sworn peace officer, he told her, “Zero,” only to later clarify he had been promoted about two months prior.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the officer’s testimony and the investigation he conducted seemed characterized by this inexperience.

With each question given to him, the officer often requested to look at his report, and at times he seemed to read directly from his notes, until he was advised not to by Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang.

While this heavy reference to his report didn’t appear to be inherently problematic, it at times came across as awkward or perhaps stumbling, with the officer appearing somewhat unprepared to recall the events of the day in question.

In my mind, this element of Officer Nguyen’s testimony seems to display how the presentation of evidence, and the “performance” of witness testimony, can impact how that evidence might be perceived.

Additionally, when questioned by the defense specifically, Officer Nguyen was challenged for several details he neglected to document during his investigation.

Smaller facts—like whether both windows of the defendant’s car were rolled up during the supposed incident—seemed less impactful. On the other hand, other details were arguably significant oversights.

In one instance, when investigating the defendant’s workplace, the newly-hired officer asked one unknown employee whether there was surveillance footage available to verify Bowman’s whereabouts, but failed to note this conversation in his report.

Defense Attorney Patricia Contreras questioned the logic of Officer Nguyen’s exclusion, asking him, “You indicated as part of your investigation you felt that it was relevant to seek surveillance footage … and you did not include that information in your report, correct?”

In spite of the air of doubt implied in the defense’s argument, evidence outside of the officer’s investigation also implicated Bowman, as the victim was able to provide matching descriptions of the defendant, his car, and license plate number to the police.

With this, Judge Chang ultimately sided with the prosecution, and Bowman is scheduled to face a jury trial in September.

I have mixed feelings on Officer Nguyen’s testimony. Most people have experienced being the new hire. And while most of us will thankfully never be called on to testify to the earliest performances of our careers, mistakes and oversights are integral to any new position.

Still, the consequences of Officer Nguyen’s inexperience are far greater than that of most employees. Gaps in a police officer’s investigation can lead to several unfortunate outcomes, including the not guilty individual being convicted, or the guilty individual being acquitted.

This clear potential for critical error reminds us that, within the space of courtroom proceedings, the testimony of law enforcement officers holds incredible sway over the outcome of a given trial.

Coincidentally, later in the week, I was able to see this influence more distinctly exemplified in another preliminary hearing, this time held in Dept. 35. There, Jonathan Bowmer, a senior deputy probation officer for Sacramento County, served as the primary witness in a drug possession and sales case.

On the stand, he recalled his investigation and subsequent arrest of defendant Christian Morrow, whom Bowmer had been assigned to monitor when Morrow was on probation for a separate criminal case.

In contrast to Officer Nguyen, Bowmer stated that he held 15 years of experience within the field of law enforcement, and his knowledge of drug sales was based on both extensive training and an estimated 140 drug-related cases he had worked.

With this knowledge base in mind, Judge George A. Acero then admitted Bowmer as an expert witness, upon the request of the prosecution and despite the objection given by the defense.

Similar to the preliminary hearing seen on Monday, the defense appeared intent to place doubt in the investigation conducted in Morrow’s case.

For instance, while Bowmer had come to believe the defendant was living in a residence unregistered to the probation department—where large quantities of methamphetamine and cocaine were found—defense attorney Hubert Chen emphasized that the defendant did not reside at the apartment.

But from his position as an expert witness, Bowmer leaned on his experience and career-based knowledge, telling the court that several pieces of evidence found during his investigation were indicative of drug sales.

“I did come to an opinion that he was engaged in drug sales,” Bower stated conclusively.

This preliminary hearing also concluded with Judge Acero stating that there was sufficient cause to believe the defendant was guilty, with a jury trial scheduled for later this year.

Ultimately, I don’t necessarily disagree with the outcome of either of these hearings. Instead, I’m left to consider the intrinsic weight of police testimony, and to wonder where the opinions and imposed implications fall in a system based within the possibility of reasonable doubt.

About The Author

Fiona Davis considers herself to be a storyteller, weaving and untangling narratives of fiction and nonfiction using prose, verse, and illustrations. Beyond her third-year English studies at UC Davis, she can be seen exploring the Bay Area, pampering her cats and dogs, or making a mess of paint or thread or words in whatever project she’s currently working on.

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