A common theme of many police detective TV programs, both reality-based and fictional, involves the criminal suspect who turns out to be his own worst enemy because he thinks that he’s smarter than the police—only to be proven disastrously wrong when he slips up by telling a lie or is otherwise caught in some inconsistency.
While it can be cathartic to watch someone who is genuinely guilty of a crime receive his comeuppance because of his own mistakes, talking your way into being convicted of a criminal offense is not something reserved only for lawbreakers. You can find yourself being stopped, arrested, tried and sentenced for a crime you didn’t commit, all based on things you say to a police officer or detective. And it happens more often than you may think.
“If I’m Innocent, Why Shouldn’t I Talk to the Police?”
In any encounter with a police officer, from the outset you need to understand that the combination of their training and experience can lead them to look at you and your circumstances in a very different way than you do. You know that you are innocent; the police officer does not. Because you know you’re innocent, you may not be paying attention to things around you that can make what you are doing or where you are seem suspicious, while to a police officer trained to look for that which “just doesn’t look right,” the same things can come across as “red flags.” You know that you are telling the truth; the police officer doesn’t know that. And to make matters worse, officers are used to being lied to by people who have already aroused their suspicions.
The bottom line is that innocent people can easily talk themselves into jail. To see how this can happen, let’s use a hypothetical:
- A crime has recently been committed near to where you are. Based on the description of the suspect, a police officer stops you for questioning because you match some of those details.
- At first, you freely answer the officer’s questions because you know that you are innocent. But after several questions, you start to become nervous because it increasingly seems from the kinds of questions he is asking and his persistence in asking them that the officer does not seem to be taking your word for things. Worse, he interprets your nervousness as more grounds for “reasonable suspicion.”
- You agree to be taken to the police station for further questioning. After all, why shouldn’t you cooperate? You’re innocent, right? There is no need for you to have a lawyer present; you haven’t done anything wrong, so why should you need one? Surely you can explain things on your own.
- Hours later (police interrogations can last for as long as 24 hours, and the average length of time of an interview that ultimately leads to a false confession is about 16 hours), due to a combination of fatigue and confusion you finally end up wanting to tell them what they want to hear and signing a confession.
It may seem hard to believe, but things like this have happened, and continue to happen. The longer you talk to police, the greater the likelihood that you will confess to a crime that you did not commit. Worse, even if you try to take it back later, a jury is highly likely to convict you based on that confession.
An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure
What can you take away from such a nightmare scenario above? Here are some key points to remember:
- If a police officer is questioning you, there is no good reason not to have an attorney present on your behalf. Your innocence may not protect you. The fact that you are telling the truth may not protect you.
- Trying to talk your way out of being detained or arrested seldom—if ever—works. Police officers can be very good at “tricking” you into saying something against your own interest even when you have done nothing wrong. If they tell you that they can make things easier on you if you “cooperate” with them, this is usually not the case. No police officer has the authority on his own to make a deal with you.
It is much easier for an attorney to help you avoid being falsely accused than to overcome a false confession. There is a reason why your right to remain silent is the first of your “Miranda” rights, and why your right to have an attorney present during questioning follows closely on the heels of your right to keep your mouth shut. Both of these are valuable rights that you should never give away even if you are completely innocent.