Criminal Law and Criminology: A Survey of Recent Books

By Neumer, Peter | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Criminal Law and Criminology: A Survey of Recent Books


Neumer, Peter, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


ROGER W. SHUY, CREATING LANGUAGE CRIMES: HOW LAW ENFORCEMENT USES (AND MISUSES) LANGUAGE, (Oxford University Press 2005) 185 PP.

   In Creating Language Crimes: How Law Enforcement Uses (and Misuses)
   Language, Roger W. Shuy draws on his decades of experience as a
   forensic linguistics expert to argue that law enforcement officials
   are, at times, guilty of using "conversational power strategies" in
   order to manipulate tape-recorded conversations and create language
   crimes such as bribery, obstruction of justice, or solicitation of
   murder. Shuy, while noting the recent scholarship documenting the
   abuse of forensic evidence generally in criminal trials, is careful
   to point out that not all, or even many, law enforcement groups
   systematically manufacture language crimes. Rather, Shuy asserts
   that law enforcement agents have engaged in problematic behavior
   with respect to tape recordings only in certain instances. Shuy
   bases his conclusions almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence
   culled from the various criminal proceedings Shuy has worked on
   first-hand.

   Shuy identifies eleven conversational strategies law enforcement
   agents and cooperating witnesses use to "create the illusion of a
   crime when one was not otherwise happening." These strategies range
   from the rather benign--employing linguistic ambiguity to suggest
   the presence of a crime (e.g., using a euphemism for the word
   "kill")--to the downright nefarious--artificially creating static
   on the recording tape to obscure the future defendant's exculpatory
   statements or manipulating the on/off switch of the tape recorder to
   give the impression that the defendant is present when she is not.

   Shuy suggests that conversational strategies are effective in
   fabricating language crimes for three primary reasons: (1) the
   strategies are not noticeable to targets because they are
   commonplace in standard conversation (for example: people often
   refer to items or acts ambiguously); (2) the strategies, although
   potentially confusing or offensive (the insertion of offensive
   language into a conversation to suggest a rough, "criminal"
   element), do not arouse suspicion that one is being set up to appear
   to be committing an illegal act; and (3) the strategies are
   invidiously deceptive ("lying about critical facts upon which the
   targets have to rely to make decisions either to commit illegal acts
   or to reject them").

   For Shuy, conversational power strategies are particularly
   troublesome in the context of a criminal investigation based on tape
   recordings, because the targets of an investigation do not know they
   are being recorded and thus cannot properly respond to the
   questionable conversational practices promulgated by a law
   enforcement agent or a cooperating witness. Were a target to be
   aware of the recording process, he could clarify vague terms or take
   the time to correct a cooperating witness' false statement.
   Absent this information, however, conversational strategies become
   powerful and effective in the fabrication of a language crime.

   Shuy divides his examples of the usage of conversational power
   strategies into two sections: uses by cooperating witnesses and
   uses by law enforcement officers. In the cooperating witness
   section, Shuy describes six separate criminal investigations
   involving alleged solicitation of murder, murder, stolen property,
   business fraud, contract fraud, and sexual misconduct respectively
   and then analyzes how cooperating witnesses attempted to use the
   conversational techniques of using ambiguous phrases, not taking
   "no" for an answer to a inculpating question, or lying to establish
   the target's guilt.

   Similarly, in the uses by law enforcement officers section, Shuy
   relates the details of five criminal investigations where the law
   enforcement agents actually were the ones employing questionable
   conversational approaches. … 

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