Technically, no one ever gets arrested for nothing. An arrest must be based on probable cause, and cause can be based on a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing and other evidence articulated by a police officer. But over-zealous officers do exist and the police can make mistakes.
Sometimes the mistakes are grave and result in serious injustices, even death. Sometimes the mistake is less extreme, but people still suffer unnecessarily. Innocent people suspected of committing a crime do end up doing jail time. Let's look at two alarming and instructive examples from The Huffington Post's collection of unnecessary arrest stories from around the country.
Spaghetti Sauce, Not Meth
Sometimes it's best to stop for lunch when you're on the road. A Georgia woman was arrested after being pulled over for a traffic violation. Cops searched her bag, based on her allegedly suspect behavior, and found a spoon with an encrusted substance on it. The 23-year-old said she'd been eating cold canned spaghetti in the car, tossed the can, and threw the spoon in her bag to return it to a friend.
The officer did not believe her, claiming she had sores on her face (presumably indicating meth addiction). His field tests on the crusty spoon supposedly came back positive for methamphetamine. But when the spoon was tested in a police lab it came back negative for drugs. All there was on it was spaghetti sauce.
So, if the defendant had accepted a plea as was offered, just to get out of jail, she would now have a permanent criminal record. But to avoid a record, the innocent woman who had no money for bail (or a decent lunch apparently) had to sit in jail for a couple of weeks. All that for a bad meal.
Keeping Clean With Homemade Soap
A couple in Pennsylvania, also in their twenties, was arrested for possession of cocaine based on some homemade soap they had packed in a bag in their car. The officer smelled marijuana in the car and conducted a search. He found no drugs in the car but there was some suspect homemade soap.
A field test came back positive for cocaine, per the police, but the lab test was negative. While the couple waited for the results, they sat in custody, unable to post three-quarters of a million dollars bail between them. They spent weeks in jail waiting for the lab results to come back and their charges to be dropped.
An arrest based on a mistake can create serious chaos in a person's life and have consequences far beyond the inconvenience of a night in jail. For example, the spaghetti spoon holder at one point was released but failed to appear in court, so was picked up later, re-arrested, and spent more time in custody.
Arrests and jail time can mean lots of fines and added obligations, so even if you were innocent but miss an appearance or a required payment, you can end up in violations of the terms of your release. A small mistake on the part of police can turn into a major headache in the life of the accused.
Talk to a Lawyer
If you are accused of a crime, however minor or grave, speak to a lawyer. As these stories demonstrate, not everything that the police do or say is right or trustworthy, and it's important to have able representation for your defense. Many attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case.