What Is Police Discretion?

Discretion is a police officer’s option to use his judgment to interpret the law as it applies to misdemeanor crimes. The laws that apply to felony crimes, such as murder, are black and white. Laws that apply to misdemeanor crimes can be a gray area for police officers, allowing them to exercise their good judgment and determine whether a crime is serious enough to carry the maximum punishment.

Police discretion relies on the officer’s confidence and good judgment to work correctly and in the best interests of the community. If a police officer holds every citizen to the letter of the law, then some violations may cost the city more money than it recoups from fines. For instance, if a police officer pulls a motorist over for a speeding violation and then discovers that the driver has been smoking a small amount of marijuana in the car, the officer can either write the motorist tickets for the traffic citation and the marijuana, seize the marijuana and take it in to the station for processing, which takes time from the officer and the custody officer, or stay on the streets policing and just write the motorist a fine for the traffic citation while giving him a warning about the marijuana use. This also applies when an officer pulls someone over for a traffic citation. It is up to the officer whether he wants to give the motorist a ticket or a warning. This is the officer’s discretion and allows him to operate in a gray area when it comes to minor legal infractions.