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You answer a knock on your door to find a uniformed police officer standing outside on the porch. You’re feeling nervous and can feel the adrenaline starting to pump, but you answer the door anyway, hoping everything is okay.
“Hello, Mr. Smith,” the polite officer says. “We would like to talk with you for a minute and ask you a few questions.” “About what,” you ask? “Oh, we don’t think you’ve done anything wrong,” they say. “We just need to ask you a few questions so we can clear your name…”
Sounds reasonable. I’ve got nothing to hide and I’ve done nothing wrong, so no harm can come of it, right?
Whether the police think you are a suspect in a crime or a witness to a crime, you are in danger anytime you agree to answer their questions. You don’t know why they really want to talk to you, you don’t know if they are telling you the truth, and you should always tell the police you cannot speak to them without your attorney present.
If you are under investigation as a suspect in a crime, the officer at your door is not trying to “clear your name.” That’s a tactic used to get their foot in the door and to get you to agree to submit to questioning.
Whether you are innocent or guilty, it will rarely benefit you to talk with the police. Your criminal defense lawyer can easily contact them on your behalf, find out what’s going on, and then give you advice as to whether you should sit down for an interview or decline.
Your attorney may also be able to explain to the police your role (or lack of role) in the situation, without risking you making statements that can be used against you later.
But, if I’ve got nothing to hide, why not?
If you think that innocent people don’t get arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes, you haven’t been paying attention. Even people who have been charged with capital murder and sentenced to death have later been exonerated by DNA evidence.
Wrongful arrests and wrongful convictions happen all the time. And they usually begin with an interrogation of a person who believed they “had nothing to hide.”
The police are not trying to clear your name. They want to make an arrest, and they are looking for any statements that they will be able to use against you later. But, you say, I’m not dumb enough to confess to a crime I didn’t commit…
Except, false confessions happen all the time – one in four people who are wrongfully convicted and later exonerated with DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement. Police are trained to make you confess to a crime and the techniques that they use work on people who didn’t commit the crime as well as people who are guilty.
If they don’t get a confession from you, they may still have gotten statements that they will use against you. You have no idea who they have talked to or what those people have told them – if you make a seemingly innocent statement that contradicts what someone else has told them, they will take that as evidence of guilt.
If you inadvertently suggest a fact from a crime scene – “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I didn’t shoot anybody…”, that may be used against you as well. How did you know a gun was used in the murder?
In some cases, if the police think that you are guilty, they will keep coming back for multiple interviews, getting as many inconsistent and contradictory statements from you as they can so they can play them for a jury later and call you a liar…
Many people feel like they can “talk their way out it.”
The problem is, they are not trained in interrogation methods, they can’t “talk their way out of it,” and all they end up doing is giving police evidence that will be used against them later.
If the police think you are a suspect, they want to talk to you for one of two reasons:
Either way, you cannot help yourself by talking with the police.
Police may offer you a polygraph to “prove your innocence.” I’ve had clients who volunteered, even demanded, to take a polygraph so they could “prove their innocence.”
What many people don’t understand is that polygraphs are not reliable truth-finders. They are so unreliable that they are not admissible in criminal court for any purposes, and studies have shown that the odds of an accurate result are no better than a random guess.
So, why do police use them? They use them as an interrogation tool.
They hook you up to the machine, establish a baseline and make it all seem very scientific, and ask you the key questions (did you kill little Joey?). Then they will tell you that you failed the polygraph and start interrogating you in earnest – “We know you are lying; the machine is never wrong! Tell us the truth and things will go easier on you…”
Be polite, but firmly tell them that you cannot talk to them without your attorney present. Take their card, get their phone number, and tell them that you will contact them as soon as you have talked to your attorney.
Will you look guilty because you asked for an attorney? No. The police don’t think it makes you look guilty, either – they think it means you have sense. Police joke and laugh about how easily they can get a suspect to answer their questions and submit to interrogation…
If the officer says, “Why do you need an attorney if you’ve got nothing to hide?” Your response should be “I want my attorney.” If the officer says, “I just need to clear your name so we can move on with our investigation and close the file,” your response should be, “I want my attorney.”
You have the right to have an attorney present before you are questioned by police, but you must insist on that right and, if you say anything other than “I want my attorney,” you may be waiving your right without realizing it.
You must clearly and unambiguously say “I want an attorney before speaking with you.” If you say anything less than a clear, unambiguous request for your lawyer, the courts will not consider it a violation when they continue questioning you…
You cannot say, “maybe I need a lawyer,” or “do you think I need a lawyer?” It must be a clear statement: “I want my attorney.”
Whether you think you may be a suspect or a witness to a crime, you should always talk to your attorneybefore you answer any questions.
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