I Want a Lawyer!: Why You Should Always Ask to Speak With an Attorney When Questioned by Police
Suspects in criminal investigations demanding to speak to their attorneys are a common part of everyone’s favorite crime drama. But, attorneys are useful for more than just progressing the dialogue in a T.V. Show. When police question you, in or out of the police station, they are keeping a careful record of what you say. Police do this to solve crimes that others commit and because they know you could become a suspect later even if you are not one right now. As anyone watching those same crime dramas should know, anything you say can be held against you in a court later on if you do become a suspect. However, there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
If you are being interviewed by police outside of the police station, you can politely tell the police officer that you do not want to give a statement and ask if you are free to leave. If the officer responds by saying that you are not free to leave, then you should immediately tell the officer that you do not want to talk until you have a lawyer with you. Likewise, if you are taken to the station by police, you should immediately tell them that you do not want to talk with them without your lawyer present. In both cases, you must make your request for a lawyer unambiguous. So, do not say things like “I think it might be better for me to have a lawyer.” Clearly state “I don’t want to talk until I have a lawyer with me.”
Once you have invoked your right to an attorney, the police are not allowed to initiate a conversation with you until you have your lawyer physically present. There are a couple exceptions to this. One is if you are released from police custody. In that case, police can contact you again after about two weeks and you would need to repeat the process of demanding to have a lawyer. The other exception is if the police feel there is an imminent public safety concern. This would be a case where the police believe the public is at risk and that you have information that could protect the public. The most extreme example of this is the ticking time-bomb situation where investigators have a limited time to defuse a bomb (though this is more common on the crime dramas mentioned before, situations similar to this do happen in real life). When the police believe there is a public safety concern, their questions must be limited to the danger they are concerned with. For example, if police arrested you because they believed you robbed someone using a gun but they found no gun on you, they could ask you about the location of the gun even if you told them you did not want to talk until you have an attorney. Aside from these two narrow exceptions, police must stop questioning you immediately after you invoke your right to an attorney.
You also have the right to remain silent. However, this right is not as useful to you as your right to an attorney. When you invoke your right to remain silent, you have to do it unambiguously and the Supreme Court has decided that this means you have to tell police out loud that you are invoking your right even if you have managed to not say a word during hours of police questioning. Further, your right to remain silent is specific to each crime. So, if you tell the police “I do not want to talk about the drug sale.”, Police can still question you about a separate robbery that also happened and you will have to invoke your right to silence again. The right to silence is even more useless because police are sometimes able to come back and re-initiate a conversation with you again later so long as they follow certain guidelines.
Invoking your right to an attorney does have one downside. If you cannot afford an attorney, then everything above still applies but it may take a while for the court to appoint you a public defender and so you may have to wait in jail for a few days while the court finds someone. But, a few days or even a couple weeks in jail is way better than incriminating yourself and almost guaranteeing yourself months or years in prison later if you are accused of a major felony or have prior convictions on your record. Plus, the fact that you served some time in jail may help your attorney negotiate a plea agreement since the prosecutor will be able to see that you have already spent some time in jail.
At the Joyce Law Firm, we have seen many clients who could have had their criminal charges reduced or dropped entirely if they had a criminal defense attorney with them from the time they were first interviewed by police. If you or someone you know is being investigated for or charged with a criminal act, the best next step is to contact an attorney specializing in criminal defense law immediately. Attorneys at the Joyce Law Firm would be happy to answer any questions you may have regarding this or any other area of criminal defense law.