My Neighbor Has to Go to Court and I Don’t Even Own a Chainsaw

For illustrative purposes, begin by picturing a cool fall day in October. Rather than rake the leaves piling up in my back yard, which seem to fall mostly from my neighbor's trees, I decide to take trip to the local police station. I calmly walk in, go to the nice lady behind the glass and tell her that I would like to report a crime. Asked the nature of the crime, I explain that my neighbor stole my chainsaw. The receptionist instructs me to fill out a complaint form. I dutifully comply and write down the following:

"One day several months ago I allowed my neighbor to borrow my chainsaw. He used it and returned it. Then yesterday, I saw him using my chainsaw again. I walked over to his yard to talk to him. I told him that I didn't mind that he is using my chainsaw, but in the future, I prefer that he ask permission first. To my surprise, my neighbor told me that the chainsaw was his not mine, and to get the 'hell off of his land.' I told him it is MY chainsaw. I know it is mine because it has blue paint on it from when I spilled blue paint in my garage last spring. He once again told me to leave and go buy my own chainsaw because the one he was holding was his. I was afraid of what would happen, so I left."

After completing my complaint and swearing to it, (meaning I sign my name swearing and affirming that what I have said is true), the complaint form would be forwarded to the prosecutor's office for consideration of charges. It is extremely unlikely that any kind of investigation would take place. I would not have to supply a purchase receipt, I would not have to show a picture of me proudly holding the chainsaw. No police officer would go out and talk to me or my neighbor, no one would want to examine the chainsaw or even look in my garage for blue paint. Rather, the prosecutor would rely solely on what was said in the well written detailed story and make a decision about what charges to file, if any.

Three weeks later my neighbor would receive in the mail a Summons to go to municipal court. Along with the summons would be two complaints one for theft of a chainsaw and one for unauthorized use of property to wit: a chainsaw. On the day of his arraignment, my neighbor goes to court believing that he can "clear the whole thing up" with a simple explanation of the facts. He expects to be able to tell the judge that I must be lying, he has no idea what this is about, he did not steal anyone's chainsaw, and he has never used anything in his life without permission. Unfortunately, the only question the Judge asks my neighbor is: "how do you plead?" At which point he rightfully says, Not Guilty.

Of course by the title of this Blog, you know that the fact is that I do not nor have I ever owned a chainsaw. Rather, I am the one who borrows tools from others in my neighborhood: (primarily because my wife has smartly limited the tools I am allowed to own for fear that I might actually attempt to use them without proper supervision from someone with actual knowledge and skill about such things). Yet, my neighbor is still faced with criminal charges for something he did not do.

The point of this story is individuals can be charged with a misdemeanor based solely on an accusation made by a person willing to "swear and affirm" to its truth.* There is no legal requirement that an investigation be done before misdemeanor charges are filed. There is no requirement that evidence be gathered, facts need not be verified, CSI need not attempt to match the paint on the floor of my garage to paint on a chainsaw. Prosecutors are permitted to file charges based solely on a person's sworn complaint because a large majority of crimes have no other supporting evidence (he stole my..., he said he was going to ..., he touched ... ). Additionally, law enforcement's resources are also generally spent on more serious accusations.

The burden of proof in our justice system does not rise to the level of beyond a reasonable doubt until trial. Before that point probable cause is all that is required to charge someone with a misdemeanor. As a result, many individuals are accused of something they truly did not do. Our legal system prefers this option to the alternative of not filing charges against possible wrongdoers. In the end, our criminal justice system relies on the work of defense attorneys to bring to light the story of the accused.

* Note: it is a crime to file a false complaint against someone, and I do not suggest that anyone solve neighborly disputes in the manner discussed.

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