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Criminal Procedure

Systemic Facts: Toward Institutional Awareness in Criminal Courts

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Criminal courts are often required, in the course of implementing existing doctrines of constitutional criminal law, to regulate other institutional actors within the criminal justice system — most notably, prosecutors and police officers. The one-off nature of constitutional criminal adjudication, however, often impedes such regulation, in part by denying courts an opportunity to “see” the systemic features of law enforcement behavior. This mismatch between criminal courts’ institutional task and their institutional capacity has inspired efforts to identify other means of addressing systemic failings of American criminal justice — including calls for a pivot to law enforcement self-regulation as a primary means of constraining state power in the criminal justice arena. The true capacity of criminal courts, however, has thus far been significantly underappreciated. For at an institutional level, criminal courts are not only deeply and serially engaged with the very governmental entities that constitutional criminal law seeks to regulate, but are also constantly collecting — often in a digital format readily amenable to organization, search, and analysis — valuable and detailed systemic facts about how other criminal justice actors operate. This information extends far beyond the truncated transactional horizon of a given case, and thus could allow courts to access a deep internal well of institutional knowledge about their local criminal justice systems. Uncovering the hidden potential of this latent institutional knowledge raises important questions about the opportunities for — and the responsibilities of — criminal courts to collect systemic facts, to analyze them, to make them transparent to litigants and to the public, and to integrate them into the process of constitutional criminal adjudication.