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Passive voice was written about

Sidebar is always gently reminding his reporters to be thoughtful in choosing whether to use the active or passive voice in a story. There’s a time to write “a spy planted the bug in the office” (active), and a time to write “the bug was planted in the office by a spy” (passive). But when in doubt, writers should use the active voice, and they should always make clear who exactly is doing the thing being done.

But police officers are cops, not copywriters, and their affidavits may not always conform to The Elements of Style, as happened in a recent case before the North Carolina Court of Appeals, where the judges opted not to disturb a defendant’s conviction over a detective’s suboptimal decision to write a key portion of an affidavit in the passive voice.

Bobby Caddell pleaded guilty to drug trafficking crimes in 2017. Caddell appealed the denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained during a search of his residence. In the application for a search warrant, the detective had prepared an affidavit saying that Caddell “was observed” making contact with a confidential informant who “was observed” exiting Caddell’s residence a short time later.

Caddell argued that nothing in the affidavit attributed these observations to any particular source, and so there was nothing in the affidavit to indicate that the identification of Caddell was reliable. But Judge Toby Hampson, writing for a unanimous Court of Appeals panel in a Sept. 17 decision, disagreed.

“To conclude from her use of the passive voice that Detective Branson lacked knowledge of the events described therein would amount to a hypertechnical, rather than a commonsense, reading of her Affidavit,” Hampson wrote.

That’s a sensible conclusion—it’s clear from the context that the detective was the person who did the observing. But the case illustrates why, as a best practice, both police officers and officers of the court should strive to write in the active voice as much as possible.

Just remember, then, this simple rule: The passive voice should be avoided—by you.


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