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Nearly every local news station is always ready, willing, and able to help law enforcement locate a "person of interest" for a criminal investigation. After all, crime reporting, particularly unsolved mysteries, makes for good television and even better ratings. But what is a "person of interest" anyway?
The phrase is intentionally vague, but the common understanding is that it refers to a suspected criminal, especially when it is used in the context of a criminal investigation. Sometimes, the phrase can refer to a witness to a crime that has gone missing and needs to be located, but even then, individuals tend to associate the phrase with suspected criminals.
The Consequences of Being Interesting
It's a story as old as mass media. An innocent man gets identified as a "person of interest" in a criminal investigation by law enforcement, then the mass media reports to the public that the man is a "person of interest," then the man's life begins falling apart due to public scorn, despite being innocent. If you've been named as a "person of interest" by law enforcement, talk to a criminal defense attorney before you do anything else.
For example, last fall, Daren Flolo was falsely identified as a "person of interest" in the Bo Kirk road rage murder in Idaho. This was due to a surveillance video being released, where the alleged perpetrator looked similar to Flolo. Although the video quality was rather poor, Flolo was identified by individuals on Facebook. Before Flolo could be proven innocent, he had already been fired and replaced at work, and gone through an emotional roller coaster with his children. Due to prior criminal charges, Flolo struggled when his own kids seemed to question his denial. Flolo told the media that he was planning on moving to a different state in order to escape the public scorn he has faced.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
One of the hallmark's of the U.S. criminal justice system is the notion that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. However, in the court of public opinion, a defendant, suspect, or person of interest, is likely to be treated like a convict regardless, at least until Google no longer works.
The phrase came into existence in a failed attempt to avoid the public scorn, humiliation, and consequences of being identified as a criminal suspect. However, due to the manner in which the phrase is used, there is really no difference. To make matters worse, individuals identified as such, like Daren Flolo, often are innocent, but law enforcement just hasn't been able to track them down for questioning as a potential witness.
Individuals who have been falsely identified, arrested, or suffered damages as a result of being named by police or media, may be able to file a lawsuit against the media or police. The specific claims will depend on the specific facts and damages suffered, but could include defamation, wrongful arrest, and other claims.