If I'm innocent, why shouldn't I talk to the police?

You have probably heard the advice that you should never, ever speak to police without an attorney. You have no doubt heard a suspect in a cop drama being told that he has the "right to remain silent," and that, "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."  And if you are like most people, you think that this is good advice for guilty people. After all, they wouldn't want to accidentally slip up and confess, or they wouldn't want to unintentionally provide police with the evidence that will ultimately convict them. But what about for innocent people? Would this advice still apply?

The answer is a resounding, "Yes!" The advice remains the same--you should never speak to police without your attorney, even if you are innocent of any wrongdoing.

"But why?" you may be asking yourself. "Why shouldn't I talk to police if I'm innocent?"

In short, the answer lies in that Miranda Warning you've heard read to suspects on televised crime shows for years. "Anything you say can AND WILL be used against you . . . "

If police are asking to interview you about possible involvement in a crime, it is important that you remember they are not looking for evidence to exonerate you. Instead, they already suspect that you are involved criminal activity, and they are looking for evidence to support their suspicion.

Here is an example of an interview with a police detective and a father falsely accused of molestation:

Detective: Have you ever touched your child's genitals?
Father: What? No! I would never do such a thing!
Detective: Do you bathe your child?
Father: Sometimes.
Detective: And when you bathe your child, do you wash her entire body? 
Father: Of course.
Detective: So you do touch your child's genitals on occasion.
Father: Well, yes, but . . .
Detective: So you were lying earlier when you said you never touched your child's genitals. In fact, you have touched your child's genitals, and you lied about it. What else are you lying about?

Sadly, the above scenario is not at all far-fetched, and manipulation of a suspect's words and intent is frequently used as evidence of guilt.

Even if you were immune to manipulation of your words--which you are not--false confessions are surprisingly common. According to an L.A. Times opinion piece, "[T]he innocent may be more susceptible than the culpable to deceptive police interrogation tactics, because they tragically assume that somehow “truth and justice will prevail” later even if they falsely admit their guilt."

The article tells of a Kansas man who spent 20 years in prison before he was exonerated by evidence that he did not commit the crime to which he confessed. Eddie Lowery was interrogated for an entire workday before the exhausted 22-year-old finally broke down and confessed to a rape and murder he did not commit. When asked why he confessed, Lowery said, "I didn’t know any way out of that, except to tell them what they wanted to hear, and then get a lawyer to prove my innocence…. You’ve never been in a situation so intense, and you’re naive about your rights. You don’t know what [someone] will say to get out of that situation."

Lowery's biggest mistake was not getting that lawyer first.

The Free Thought Project lists 10 reasons you should never talk to police, and several of these reasons are aimed at innocent individuals:

  • Talking to police cannot help you. They already suspect you of a crime. If they have enough evidence to arrest you, they will. No one ever talked his way out of an arrest.
  • It's so easy to tell a little white lie in the course of a statement. Even if you lie about an insignificant or unrelated fact, it destroys your credibility. "Why would he lie unless he were guilty?"
  • Even if you avoid making a little white lie during questioning, police may have inaccurate recall about what you said. When a police officer testifies at trial that you said something, you can deny it all you want--but it's your word against the officer's. Who is the jury going to believe?
  • It is virtually impossible for one person to tell the exact same story--even a true story--the same way twice. When questioned repeatedly, you may include a detail you didn't provide the first time, leaving police to wonder why you left it out. Or your memory of events may slightly change: Maybe you first told police you were home all day Tuesday, but later remember that you did actually leave the house to pick up groceries. When your story doesn't match up perfectly, it gives investigators wiggle room to start picking your story apart and highlighting inconsistencies. 

It is very important to realize that your right to remain silent is effective from the minute police approach you. You will not be read your rights unless and until you are arrested, but you still have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. This is especially important to know in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling which says your silence CAN be used as an indication of guilt if you do not insist upon your right to silence from the get-go. If police ask you seemingly innocent questions, and you go along with answering them, only to clam up when you realize they are asking you about involvement in a crime, then your silence can be brought up at trial. 

Even if  you are innocent, when police come to question you about a crime, you should have only four words for them:

"I want a lawyer."

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