Your Right to Remain Silent
Law enforcement officers, at all levels of government, perform vital services for public safety. They get intoxicated drivers off the road, investigate motor vehicle accidents, solve homicides, intervene in domestic violence situations, et cetera. Nonetheless, sometimes it is not in your best interest to voluntarily provide information to a cop. Here are some basic tips.
1. If you are stopped, do not admit to any traffic violation. You may believe you are so charismatic or sympathetic that you can talk your way out of a ticket. Don’t count on that. Or maybe you think that if you confess, the officer will give you a written warning instead of a summons for court. That happened to me when I was about 19 years old: when a patrol officer asked whether I knew why I had been stopped, I admitted to driving a little over the speed limit; he then told me that he had not caught me on his radar gun but, instead, had pulled me over because I had a tail light out. I got a warning, but I almost talked myself into two civil traffic violations. If a cop stops you and asks whether you know why you were stopped, tell the truth: you do not know. Any other answer is based on speculation. You are required to provide your name, driver’s license, proof of vehicle registration, and proof of insurance, though. And if you’re given a summons, you have to sign it: it’s not an admission of guilt, and refusal to sign it is a crime.
2. If you have been detained or arrested for the investigation of an alleged crime, it is rarely a wise decision to speak with the investigating officer about it, especially if you’re already in handcuffs. Even if you are totally innocent, your words can be used against you in ways that you cannot predict. Also, if you are innocent of the alleged crime but guilty of something else, you can talk yourself into a conviction for a different offense. You may not even know that something you have done is a crime or a civil violation until after you have confessed. To make matters worse, false confessions have been elicited in countless cases, and your case could be the next one. After you have confessed (or “confessed”) your defense attorney has an uphill struggle in representing you and may not be able to prevent a conviction, even if you did nothing illegal.
3. If you think you are a suspect or could become one, you should not assume that factual innocence will keep you out of jail. Sometimes, innocent people go to jail for a few hours or days (or longer) while they clear themselves of any suspicion. Again, some innocent people make false confessions, are convicted of crimes, and spend years in prison. When in doubt, exercise your right to remain silent.
4. If you have committed a crime, and a cop is asking you about it, do not think any kind of excuse or apology will keep you from going to jail. There is virtually no chance that you will talk your way out of the situation. However, there is a good chance that incriminating statements will later be used against you, whether in court or during plea negotiations. In other words, you’re much more likely to make things worse than makes things better. So, simply decline any request by law enforcement to speak about the allegations.
5. Do not give a false name or sign anything with a false name. Cops are pretty good at figuring out when someone is pretending to be a different person, and even if you can get away with it for a while it is likely to catch up with you, sometimes hours, days, or weeks later. If you have signed a summons with another person’s name, you may be charged with felony-level forgery. That forgery might even be recorded by police cameras and mics, too. If, for instance, you’re ducking an arrest warrant or got caught driving with a suspended license, you’re digging yourself a deeper hole if you pretend to be your cousin, neighbor, sibling, or whoever else.
In conclusion, remember the key Miranda warning language: you have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.