These days, everyone is nervous when confronted by a police officer. Even if you are only a witness to a traffic accident, your adrenaline pumps a bit quicker when the police are asking you questions. We all feel obliged to make sure we get the facts right when we’re relating what we saw to the police. The pressure to be correct in the official record is a big reason for our nerves.
But what should you do if the police suspect YOU are the one who is guilty of a crime? You have several options, only one of which is good:
- Decline to answer questions until you speak with a lawyer.
- Tell the police everything you know and hope for the best.
- Lie to them.
- Try to talk yourself out of trouble.
Although the police are only required to notify you of your Miranda rights when you are in their custody, you still possess the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during any questioning, even when not in custody.
Silence Is Golden
When we look at the four courses of action for a person facing police questions listed above, there is only a single option that protects you under all circumstances, whether you are guilty or innocent of wrongdoing. Let’s take them one at a time.
Decline to answer until you speak with a lawyer
When the police stop you on the street, call you on the phone, or bring you to the police station to interview you about events relating to a suspected crime or some trouble that occurred, everything you say in answer to their questions, and whatever information you volunteer without being asked, can and will be used against you in criminal prosecution.
The only safe action is to politely, but insistently, tell the police you want to talk to a lawyer before answering any questions.
There is no harm in simply delaying any questions until you talk with a lawyer who can advise you on what to do. Yes, the police will disapprove. They may become angry. They might harass you, declaring that only guilty people want lawyers. They may even continue to question you even after you’ve asked for your lawyer.
Stay strong. Trust that you are within your rights and stick to your silence.
Bad Decision # 1. Tell the police everything and hope for the best? — This response leads to your utter surrender of all control. If you are guilty of some offense, confessing to it prevents your lawyer from being able to protect you from harsh penalties. By spilling all the information you have, you could be giving police more than they would ever have learned without your help. Doing so before allowing your lawyer to negotiate some benefit for you is self-destructive.
If you had little or no involvement in the matter being investigated, speaking freely and answering questions may seem like a good idea. But your answers can be misinterpreted, your involvement could be exaggerated by detectives, or you may simply be disbelieved. There is no guarantee you won’t still be prosecuted.
Bad Decision # 2. Lying. — Lying to the police is never smart and never helpful. In most cases, the police will recognize that you are lying even as you are speaking the falsehoods. Otherwise, they will learn about your lies soon afterward by speaking with other suspects or witnesses and further investigating.
Lying to the police means whatever else you may want to say later at trial in your own defense will easily be portrayed as more lies. Your credibility as a source of reliable information will be destroyed. In the end, nothing positive is produced by lies.
Bad Decision # 3. Trying to talk yourself out of trouble. — Trying to talk yourself out of trouble with the police is another high-risk low-reward tactic. This strategy puts the suspect in an all-or-nothing predicament. Even if truthfully minimizing your own culpability when talking with police, these situations almost always include some admission of wrongdoing on the part of the suspect.
If you implicate yourself in even a minor crime during your attempt to talk yourself out of trouble, then you’ve already invited prosecution. And if your attempt to talk your way out of suspicion includes half-truths or lies, well, see Bad Decision # 2 above.
Do Not Convict Yourself by Speaking
The police and prosecutors need evidence to charge you with a crime and to win a conviction. When the police possess enough evidence to arrest someone, they either do so immediately or ask a judge or magistrate to issue an arrest warrant.
- If the police already had enough evidence to arrest and charge you before they questioned you, they would already have arrested you.
- If the police had too little evidence to arrest you before they question you, why would you want to add to the evidence against yourself by answering questions?
- If the police have plenty of evidence without questioning you, you will be arrested and charged whether you answer questions or refuse to answer them.
- If the police have too little evidence to arrest you and you refuse to answer questions, then they will continue to have insufficient evidence, at least from you.
Can You Trust the Police to Tell You the Truth? No.
The law allows the police to use some deceptive practices in their investigation of crimes. For example, when two suspects are arrested on suspicion of robbing a store together, the police officer questioning one suspect can lie and claim that the second suspect already confessed and blamed the first one. By convincing the first suspect that the second one betrayed them, the police hope to get the aggrieved suspect to confess, but to blame the other as more culpable.
The Fear and Loneliness of Arrest
Facing arrest or being arrested and locked up in a jail cell is a frightening experience. Almost everyone feels vulnerable, alone, and desperate to do something to find comfort. This pressure to escape whatever negative consequences might be coming next is a strong incentive to think talking to the police will help.
If speaking to the police or answering questions will help you, your lawyer can advise you of that fact when they consult with you. In most cases, there is no benefit in talking with police and most lawyers will notify the police not to question you unless the lawyer is present.
The Right to Remain Silent
Our attorneys at Stechschulte Nell specialize in representing Tampa area residents accused of crimes.