In past posts, I’ve tried to drive home how important it is that you never talk to the police without a lawyer present. Today, I’m going to launch a series of posts outlining specific reasons that talking to the police gets people into trouble. (Incidentally, it’s unlikely that the police will ever refer to their questions as “interrogation.” Police departments throughout the country, including the Salt Lake City Police Department, have figured out that calling it interrogation has a bad connotation. Police officers are likely to call it an “interview,” “questioning,” a “chat,” or any other word to give you the impression that you are just having a friendly conversation.)
If the police ever interrogate you, the questioning usually goes on for hours. After all, they’re getting paid to question you and they’re in no rush to do their other, more boring work. The police interrogate people they already think are guilty of a crime, and you can’t talk your way out of their suspicions. During the hours and hours of questioning, it is inevitable that you will say something that sounds bad, especially if taken out of context. In court, the police officer will repeat this incriminating sounding statement without any context whatsoever.
The following scene from the movie My Cousin Vinny is a great example:
Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) thinks he is confessing to stealing a can of tuna fish, but the Sheriff (Bruce McGill) thinks he murdered a store clerk. As Bill begins to understand what the interrogation is really about, confused, he asks (twice), “I shot the clerk?” Well, later in the movie the Sheriff testifies in court, but when he recounts Bill’s “confession” it’s no longer a question, but rather a simple statement, “I shot the clerk.” In the movie, Bill’s character nearly gets convicted for murder over this. In real life, you won’t have a Hollywood screenwriter to save your bacon.
Police officers have interrogated thousands of people before and know more about interrogation than you. They will ask you lose-lose questions, and you will be left with the choice of either lying or saying something unflattering that will look terrible when taken out of context. Say, for example, your neighbor’s house got robbed and the police suspect that you are somehow involved. You and your neighbor have been having a dispute about her tree, which the police already know. During the interrogation they ask you if you are fighting with her. You are stuck at that point. If you lie, then you could be facing additional charges, such as Obstruction of Justice, and the prosecutor will really drive home the point that you were lying to the police. On the other hand, if you choose to be candid and admit you have been fighting with your neighbor, the police will follow that angle until you say something terribly inconvenient, such, “I don’t like her at all, in fact, but I would never rob her.” Guess which part of the sentence the jury will hear.
If you never talk to the police at all, your relatively tame spat with your neighbor about her tree isn’t going to concern a jury. But if you couple that with an admission that you don’t like your neighbor, then the prosecutor has something to work with. Furthermore, if you mis-remember any details and later contradict yourself, regardless of how innocuous, then the prosecutor has a lot to build a case on.
It’s also really easy to contradict yourself. During my lunch break today, I went to a local takeout restaurant and tried to order a cappuccino. The proprietor looked at me somewhat accusatorily and asked, “have you been here before?” Before thinking about it I blurted out, “No.” His answer implied that I had no idea what I was doing, and my natural, amiable disposition caused me to answer incorrectly. A few seconds later I changed my answer to the correct answer, “Well, I’ve been here once, a year ago.” In conversations, people subtly change their answers all the time. If you let the police lull you into believing you are having a casual “conversation” with them, you too will change your answers.
For me, it was a low stress situation of ordering lunch. Imagine how wrong things could go during a police interrogation. Whichever answer a prosecutor prefers, that’s what the jury will hear. Or it could be advantageous for the prosecutor to make sure the jury hears all your answers and portray you as someone who can’t keep their story straight. Without any context of the surrounding conversation to the police, the job of the prosecutor will be easy. A clever prosecutor is halfway to a conviction.
Don’t talk to the police and make the job of a prosecutor easy.