Most of us are taught from a young age to be respectful to our elders, as well as authority figures. We are raised to believe that police officers are there to help us, and if we are ever in trouble, we can count on them. When I was a child our elementary school had "officer friendly" come to a school assembly, where he was introduced to us, along with his friendly canine companion. We were instructed that police officers were someone who we could trust, if we were in trouble and needed help.
This is the background that many adults and teenagers come from, and police officers are taught to exploit this trust of the police, in order to get the information or the confession they need to get an arrest. I am constantly surprised that people who have something to hide, will invariably provide the information to police voluntarily. Most of the time they do so for one of several reasons:
- They think if they confess, it will go easier on them.
- They think they have no choice but to provide the information.
Let's look at each of these issues. In the first scenario, a police officer will usually be stopping or speaking with a criminal suspect, before they have a chance to consult with their attorney. Sometimes the suspect will of their own accord, decide that confession is their best chance, but often times the officer will make a vague assertion that “things will go better if you tell us the truth.” In certain areas of life, it may be true that the “truth will set you free”, but the criminal justice system is not one of them. If a person confesses to a crime, they make it very tough for their defense attorney to get a great result on their behalf. This is because it is tough to convincingly argue that your client didn't commit the crime, when they confessed to the police. We are left trying to argue motions to suppress or exclude the confession for a variety of reasons. This is a difficult burden to meet, and unless the officer made significant procedural mistakes, it is likely the judge will allow the confession to be introduced at trial. I can say that there have been very few cases in my career, where I have found that a client's confession impressed a prosecutor or judge. They normally receive very little credit for the gesture, and make it much tougher to have a good outcome in their case. It may be that the police know you committed the crime, but they still have to prove it in court, unless you confess on your own.
In the second scenario, the person being questioned thinks they have no legal right to refuse to answer, or provide information to the police. This is a common misunderstanding, but one only has to think back to the Miranda rights to understand that a person being questioned has 1) a right to ask to speak to an attorney prior to answering any questions, and 2) has the right to remain silent as well. It is always better to say nothing at all than to provide information against yourself. In conclusion the steps you should take when confronted by a police officer are:
- Ask if you are free to leave.
- If they say you may, do so. If they indicate you may not leave, you have established that you are being detained, and now you have a right to remain silent, and consult with an attorney.
- Tell them you wish to exercise your rights, and consult with an attorney before answering any further questions.
- If you have an attorney, you should provide them with the contact information of the attorney, or preferably call them on your own cell phone.
- If you do not have an attorney, ask to speak to a public defender. There is usually an on call public defender in every jurisdiction that the police can call on to advise you. If you cannot reach them, ask for a phone book and call attorneys until you reach one.
- Do not make any further statements to the police, even if they threaten to take you to jail. It is better to spend a night or two in jail, and eventually win your case; versus spending years in prison when you don't.