How police lie

In the county I live in, one police officer is called the top person for catching OVI (Operating Vehicle while Intoxicated) offenses. But a cell phone video taken by one of the people he stopped showed that not only did he lie in his official reports about the results of a field test he administered that he claimed showed the driver was impaired, but that he was even willing to lie even in court.

The judge issued a scathing opinion when the lying was revealed.

The county’s former “Top OVI Cop” was indicted by a grand jury Friday with felony perjury and other charges that accuse him of lying in a police report and on the witness stand about an April drunken-driving arrest captured on cellphone video.

North Royalton police officer Steven Zahursky is also charged with tampering with evidence and falsification related to the April 6 arrest of 22-year-old Austin Smith-Skinner, according to John Ricotta, a defense lawyer who served as a special prosecutor on the case.

Charges against Smith-Skinner were dropped after Parma Municipal Court Judge Timothy Gilligan wrote in an Oct. 24 order that cellphone video Smith-Skinner recorded during field sobriety tests stood “in shocking and chilling contrast” to what Zahursky wrote in his report, and then testified to during an October hearing.

Zahursky attested to the facts in his report on the stand, and said again that Smith-Skinner was slurring heavily and raised his arms during the tests. Smith-Skinner then got on the stand and Manning played the video.

Gilligan called Zahursky back up to the stand after he saw the video, and asked for it to be played again. The judge told the officer to say “stop” whenever the video showed Smith-Skinner swayed or raised his hands during the tests, court records say.

Zahursky remained silent, because the video showed Smith-Skinner never made those motions, Gilligan wrote.

The police and legal system tends to treat the statements of police as presumptively true and this places defendants in a difficult position to counter lies if there are no witnesses. Cell phones partly compensate as do police body cameras. But the town where this happened does not issue dash cams or body cams to the police so without this video, Smith-Skinner would have had no hope of being exonerated.

It is not clear how many of the high numbers that Zahursky obtained were due to his willingness to lie about what he observed.


  1. johnson catman says

    I do not have very good balance, and I am pretty sure that even stone-cold sober, I would not be able to perform that feat of holding the foot off the ground for a 30-count without swaying or using my arms to keep my balance. Why was a breathalyzer not used?

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    I read the linked article. I don’t see any mention of a breathalyzer or blood test being presented as corroborating evidence to the field sobriety test. That seems a strange omission.

  3. lochaber says

    I don’t think I could pass any of the field sobriety tests whilst sober. I also think that is intended -- it gives them an excuse to arrest nearly anyone they pull over.

    I’m guessing they didn’t present breathalizer results because those would likely be exonerating…

  4. Jazzlet says

    In the UK all police officers on vehcle duty carry hand held breathalysers that give at worst a pass/fail reading, some give approximate ppm readings. This is partly because any driver involved in an accident has to give a breath test. If you fail you are taken to use the more accurate machines at the local station or you can opt to have your blood tested. Faiure to give a breath test or blood for testing is an offence in itself, because it is the accurate breath test or the blood test that are admissable in court. An officer simply couldn’t do the whole faking the roadside test thing.

  5. Matt G says

    I read somewhere (Freethought Blogs?) that cops even have a name for the practice of committing perjury on the witness stand: testilying.

  6. says

    It is not clear how many of the high numbers that Zahursky obtained were due to his willingness to lie about what he observed.

    This is serious stuff. Let’s say someone gets a couple points on their license for DUI: their insurance goes way up. They may be forced to take classes and go to meetings, which may impact their livelihood. It’s going to fall especially hard on people who are right on the financial margin. Officer dirtball has probably had a major impact on people’s lives and because of how it was done, it’s irreversible.

    As always there will be people who knew exactly what was going on yet chose to remain silent because it was convenient or it was too much trouble to risk retaliation from a fellow officer. There is no way that officer dirtball’s peers were unaware of what was going on, and his boss would certainly know. That’s an entire police department that needs to have its command structure decimated.

  7. says

    Matt G@#6:
    Possibly over at [stderr] -- or at Caine’s. Police abuse is a pretty common topic around here. I did two postings referencing “testilying” and why sworn testimony should not be admissable as evidence.

  8. John Morales says

    Marcus @5, you beat me to it. I was thinking of Steve Martin in The Man With 2 Brains:

    And yes, here in Oz also, road coppers all have breath-test kits.

    Marcus, again:

    That’s an entire police department that needs to have its command structure decimated.

    So, leaving 90% of it intact? 😉

    But yes, it’s a classic case of quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  9. DonDueed says

    One possible reason the cop was willing to arrest the kid and commit perjury: the kid was trying to exercise his rights. The phrase “Am I free to go?” is one recommended by civil rights attorneys to use when you’ve been stopped. The officer should agree that a driver is free to go unless there’s probable cause for further detention (such as obvious impairment, a visible weapon, drugs, or alcohol, or being black haha).

    This driver used that phrase twice during the sobriety test. I’ll bet this cop was trying to teach the smartass kid a lesson about who had the power in his town. What bill of rights, amirite?

  10. says

    One does have to wonder about the intelligence of the cop, though. Didn’t he notice that the kid was recording it? Did he somehow think that didn’t matter? He testilied anyways!

  11. Josh Volchko says

    Hey, I live in North Royalton, go us! I don’t have anything to add. It’s not surprising given I’ve spent my entire life in boring bedroom suburbs with cops with too much time on their hands and think they own the town. I still guiltily cheer anytime they pull over one of the many crazy drivers who do inhabit the area.

  12. says


    One does have to wonder about the intelligence of the cop, though. Didn’t he notice that the kid was recording it? Did he somehow think that didn’t matter? He testilied anyways!

    We’ve seen this behavior in cops before though. I’m not sure if they’re simply confident that they can disappear the evidence before trial or if they don’t care about convictions -- the arrest being “punishment enough” to make them feel powerful -- and don’t believe that their supervisors would ever hold them accountable.

    The truth is that there is very little evidence that the public can rely on police forces to hold individual officers accountable. While some departments have done so, and perhaps some even have decent records of doing so over a period of time, that’s different from being able to rely on cops to discipline other cops. There doesn’t seem to be any reasonable basis for trust on the part of the civilian populace that this would occur, so why would cops expect it? Even worse, the cops have a better basis for knowing whether or not their agency is one of those currently enforcing consistent discipline. If they’ve seen others get away with breaking the law, why shouldn’t they expect to get away with breaking the law?

    Unfortunately, the officer in this case probably had a rational basis for believing that he would get away with his abuse of power.

  13. Sam N says

    @7, Marcus,

    Decimated, as is typical, is understatement. That department needs to be dismantled, not to have it’s staff reduced by one tenth. OK, I’m being a pedant. In colloquial usage, I understand.

  14. Holms says

    How police lie: brazenly, trusting in their uniform to carry their word.

    As for the meaning of decimate, the current meaning is ‘reduce heavily in number’ or similar.

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