Police Reports: What Are They, What Do They Stand For, And How to Get Them?

Posted January 26, 2018

Police Reports

Most people do not understand what goes into a police report, what it stands for in a court of law, and how to go about obtaining one. A police report is a form that is completed by a law enforcement officer after an accident or arrest. In the context of traffic accident cases, the precise name of the report is a “Traffic Collision Report.” In the context of a criminal arrest, the report is called an “Arrest Report.” In the event of a car accident involving a criminal charge of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) of alcohol or a controlled substance, there will be a Traffic Collision Report as well as an Arrest Report. However, people unfamiliar with these documents, or even attorneys who don’t specialize in traffic accident cases, frequently refer to them simply as “police reports.” We’ll use the terms police report and traffic collision report interchangeably in this article.

What a Police Report Stands For In Court
A police report is merely a police officer’s documentation of his or her investigation. Unless the officer was physically present at the scene prior to the incident and actually witnessed what happened firsthand, then the report is at best his or her opinion regarding what happened based on an investigation. As such, the report is considered hearsay evidence and is not admissible in a court of law. The hearsay rule provides that out of court statements or documents (such as a traffic accident report) may not be submitted as evidence in court in order to prove a case. But this doesn’t mean the officer’s work and investigation is rendered completely useless. It still has certain limited uses.

Alejandro “Sandy” Stern (Raul Julia) in Presumed Innocent, 1990

While the report cannot be submitted as evidence to prove or disprove a legal case, the investigating police officer may be called as a witness in court to testify as to his or her investigation. As a witness in court, the officer would be expected to testify in like fashion with what is written in the report. In this respect, the report gives you and your personal injury lawyer a good indication of what the officer would be likely to say in court.

Also, any statements by opposing parties in the police report may be submitted as evidence under one of three notable exceptions to the hearsay rule: an admission by a party opponent; a statement against interest; or a prior inconsistent statement. While the police report is hearsay evidence, and therefore inadmissible in court, any statements that were admissions regarding the legal matter, statements against the interest of the party making them, or prior inconsistent statements (the party’s position taken in court is different that the statement given to the police officer), are admissible in court to prove your personal injury case.

How to Obtain a Police Report
The quickest way to a copy of a Traffic Collision Report or Arrest Report is to hire a personal injury attorney who will handle the task for you. You need an attorney anyway; it is essential if you want the best possible outcome in your legal case. Once you hire an attorney, he or she will obtain the report through the most efficient channels, which depends upon the agency who prepared the report. Some law enforcement agencies make the reports available on the internet through certain legal providers. Some only provide the report over the counter at the agency. Some agencies accept mail requests, which your lawyer can expedite by delivering a stamped mailing envelope to the correct contact person at the agency and paying applicable fees in advance so that the moment the report is ready it will be forwarded to your lawyer.

How Long Does It Take To Get A Police Report?
The length of time it takes to get a police report depends on three factors: (1) the responsible law enforcement agency, (2) the severity of the injuries; and (3) whether that is an ongoing criminal investigation, such as a DUI. The single most important factor is the responsible agency, which is determined by accident location. The California Highway Patrol (CHP), which handles incidents occurring on a freeway or state highway, is usually the quickest. They get the job done within a matter of days, and your lawyer can usually obtain the CHP report in less than one week, sometimes in as little as 3-5 days. Rarely does CHP take longer than 7 days. The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), which handles incidents on the streets in the City and County of San Francisco, is a little slower. They can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks, or longer. Other agencies, including other police departments such as the San Mateo County Sheriff, have varying processing times but most are closer to that of SFPD, which is 2-4 weeks.

If there are severe injuries, or a death occurred, the investigation will take much longer and the report will often need to be reviewed by upper management within the agency. This can significantly increase the processing time until the report is available to your traffic accident lawyer. If there is an ongoing criminal investigation, CHP will usually prepare its report quickly but the other agencies may take longer than one month to prepare their report. Even if the report is going to take two months to complete, for example because of an ongoing DUI investigation with the SFPD, a competent personal injury lawyer will be able to contact the investigating officer and immediately obtain relevant information, including sometimes digital photographs, needed to take all necessary steps to protect your interests and to build a strong legal case.