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Police and Criminal Law

Many Jurisdictions and Rules. The United States has many layers of government and hence many layers of police. The system is complicated, with overlapping federal, state, county, and municipal police forces. The police are responsible for enforcing the criminal law of their jurisdictions. With so many jurisdictions to deal with, it is not always easy for Americans to keep up to date with the laws they must obey. Ignorance of the law is no excuse in the United States, even if the law is obscure.

Under the American system, a “crime,” large or small, can only exist if specific written legislation applies that makes an act (or a failure to act) a crime. If, in a certain jurisdiction, it is not illegal to ride a bicycle nude, the police cannot arrest the nude cyclist, unless he or she causes a public disturbance of some kind. In such a case, the police may indeed arrest the cyclist, only to cause procedural difficulties and media controversies later on. Police can be counted on the know the major laws, but they are not legal scholars.

Beyond the question of the actual law the police must enforce, police have differing practices depending on the locality. For example, in one part of a state, a posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour may mean you may drive at up to 65 miles an hour without risking a speeding ticket, while in another part of the state the speed limit is strictly enforced. Police departments also vary in how quickly or how professionally they respond to reports of crime, and certainty in the skill and efficiency with which they interact with other agencies and departments in coordinating crime-fighting efforts. Another important aspect in which police departments differ involves their standing in the communities. Some departments take steps to improve relations with the public, conducting educational events and community outreach programs, while others operate in an environment of suspicion and mistrust, especially in low-income areas.

As a result, in any community, it is important to understand those aspects of the law that apply to you, as well as the “culture” of the local police.

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