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  • Mike Huseman

Silence is Golden

Speaking to the police, even for a little bit, can have serious consequences. If the police think you did something wrong, it can be disastrous to answer their questions. Most people don't realize just how badly things can go. Because of this, people talk to the police all the time. It's actually very difficult to not talk to the police. You may want to speed things up by just answering a few questions so that you can go home. Or you think that you can honestly explain whatever situation they are inquiring about. But even though it is very difficult to do, it usually best to say something like "I want to remain silent and talk to my lawyer." Say it politely and just say it once. And don't respond to any of the follow up questions that they will fire at you.

There are many reasons why it is dangerous to speak to the police. First, the police can use the conversation against you no matter what you say. Your tone, manner of speaking, and choice of words can all be used against you no matter what you actually say. This is true even if you are just nervous, cold, sick, etc. If you are speaking slower or faster than what a police officer feels is "normal," it will be used against you. Even if they have never heard you speak before. If you misuse a word, even if it is a common slip of the tongue, or if you stutter, it can be used against you as evidence of intoxication in a DUI case, for example. And God forbid that English is your second language. Any mistake or hesitation in translating the words in your own head can be used against you. The police report will indicate that you were slow to respond. And the police will testify in court that being slow to respond is evidence of intoxication based upon their training and experience. That happens all of the time.

Of course the words that you speak can have consequences too. The police are trained interrogators. Their number one goal is to make you talk and keep you talking. And they are good at what they do. It may seem like they are only making small talk, but there are reasons for the questions they are asking. It may seem like you are only naturally conversing with a police officer but you are really supplying them with evidence to be used against you that they did not otherwise have. The classic example is how police officers always ask where have you been or where are you coming from when they pull over your car. There have literally been cases where people have unknowingly placed themselves at the scene of a crime by answering those exact questions. People have been convicted of crimes they did not commit, and have later been exonerated, in those situations. In several of those cases, the only evidence used against those people at trial was that they admitted to being at the scene of a crime, but they did not even know that a crime had been committed when they were answering the questions.

And police can take a rougher approach to questioning as well. Police often bully people into speaking by repeatedly asking the same things over and over in different ways. And if your answers vary at all, they will accuse you of lying. But the police lie to us regular folks all of the time. The United States Supreme Court has held that police officers can lie to get you to say what they want. They can lie about whether they are even investigating a crime, what crime they are investigating, who they have already talked to, what those people supposedly have already said, they can lie about what evidence they supposedly already have, etc. They can even lie about whether your conversation is off the record, whether you have immunity, and whether they deem you to be a suspect or only a witness. You have to assume that everything a police officer tells you is a lie. We've all seen detectives on TV tell the suspect that they found his DNA at the scene and then the guy confesses. Those tricks happen in real life too. The last words that some people hear before getting arrested are often "Just tell me you had a beer or two and we can get you out of here." As soon as you admit having consumed even one drop of alcohol, you get arrested for DUI.

Even words that you never even said can be used against you, if you decide to say anything at all. Police officers mishear, misremember, and misinterpret things all of the time. They can be sloppy or even dishonest. There have been cases where exact quotes have changed between a detective's handwritten notes and that same detective's typed report. In one case, the handwritten notes said the suspect offered an alibi that he was "with his girlfriend." But by the time those notes were typed up, they said that he was "with his girlfriend at home." Turns out the guy was actually with his girlfriend, but they were not at home. Guess which report the prosecutors used at trial. If he would not have talked at all, it would not have looked like he was lying. No one knows if he really said he was at home or not. If he would have stayed silent, the jury only would have heard that he did have an alibi and he was with his girlfriend.

Just think what could happen if there was a typo in a report. What if a police report says that your first words were "I did it." But you had actually screamed "I did it??!!" because you could not believe they were accusing you of anything. You may have been honestly shocked and surprised. But a question screamed in disbelief can be turned into a confession due to a punctuation typo when the police type up the report. By ending those same words with a period, it reads like a confession. If a defense lawyer receives a police report that says "I did it," he might convince the client to plead guilty to a lesser charge. You might not want to risk your freedom on whether the police officer will testify to the correct tone of voice you used when you were accused of a crime.

Even when there are multiple law enforcement officers present when a statement is made, they can each interpret the statement differently. There was one case where there were two detectives interviewing a suspect. One detective thought the suspect said "I messed up," which is essentially a confession. The other detective in the room thought the guy said "this is messed up," which is consistent with a denial. Guess which version the jury believed. No one really knows what the guy said, but he went to prison.

I could go on and on, but I think you get my point. Even innocent people who have not done anything wrong can be convicted of a crime by simply answering one question asked by the police. The only way to protect yourself is to not say a single word. Remember, if you must talk you can always do so later, after you talk to your lawyer. Do not lock yourself into a story until you fully understand what is going on. Maybe your lawyer will decide that you should make a statement, but do not answer any questions until you have had a chance to go over everything with your lawyer.

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