Bill Cervone: Taking numbers at face value


Published: Monday, January 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 11:53 p.m.

The Sun's recent series about the resolution of criminal cases in Alachua County raises many valid issues that are worthy of community discussion. The series also could be said to point out the danger in taking numbers at face value or out of context. Statistics have a place in any analysis, but they should always be looked at as a starting point and not a conclusion. All of us, for example, have seen instances in which two sides of an issue can recite statistics supporting their position even when they take polar opposite stands.

Towards that end, I'd like to offer some more information about the case dismissal figures. As was pointed out, my office codes dismissals. This is for many purposes and while those codes are as much art and interpretation by the attorneys who resolve the cases as they are science, they still allow me to say several things.

Among them are that the coded dismissals in 2011, the last year for which complete data is available, indicating a pure and simple improper or unsustainable case totaled only 37 of 4,972 cases for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and 68 of 10,845 cases for the Gainesville Police Department. Those are, respectively, .007% and .006% of the total — pretty low numbers by anyone's definition.

The reasons for those dismissals include cases where courts ruled that evidence was inadmissible because of a legal problem with how it was obtained, cases where the submitting agency was requested to do something more, cases where the facts did not establish the commission of a crime, and cases where it was determined that the accused was in fact innocent. Only five ASO cases and 16 GPD cases fell into that last category.

While everyone in the criminal justice system would agree that even one case where the wrong person was accused is too many, let me hasten to add that an officer on the street must often act immediately on limited information, and it may only be much later when a full investigation uncovers additional evidence that the original officer simply didn't have the benefit of. Certainly, dismissal is the right result when that turns out to be so.

Another thing that needs to be appreciated is the large variety of reasons that fall within the generic category of dismissals. Dismissal of a case may occur because the defendant was convicted and sentenced on another case. In 2011, 287 ASO and 582 GPD cases were closed for that reason.

Dismissal might be forced because a victim or essential witness disappears or refuses to testify. Again in 2011, 343 ASO cases and 558 GPD cases ended that way. The defendant may have completed some voluntary probationary program that allowed the court system to accomplish its goal of addressing whatever issue might be present without a fully contested trial. For 2011, 658 ASO and 1,683 GPD cases involved that kind of resolution. While labeled dismissals, those cases had positive outcomes.

Even the term “insufficient evidence” can have many meanings. In some instances, a victim or witness may lack credibility because of drug or alcohol abuse or another reason unique to the case. There may be irreconcilable conflicts between what various witnesses say. Lab results may be inconclusive or contradictory. None of this may be readily apparent or even discoverable to the officer on the street who must make an immediate decision.

My point is that there is a difference between anecdotal or isolated stories, even those included in the Sun series, and a pattern of inefficiency, ineptness or abuse of power. While recognizing that law enforcement is no more perfect than anything else, those types of problems do not in my view permeate or characterize law enforcement in Alachua County.

Bill Cervone is the State Attorney for the 8th Judicial Circuit.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top