Knowing Your Rights Could Be the Difference Between Decades in Prison and Freedom

In my last post, I wrote about the collateral consequences of a conviction. It is worth repeating that a conviction will follow you for the rest of your life.  I feel that I left out an important fact: unlike many other laws dealing with criminal convictions there is no ex-post facto to save you. At any time the legislature can add a collateral consequence that is essentially retroactive. You can be convicted or plead guilty in one decade only to have new rights taken away from you in a different one. This is unlike any other area of criminal law. 

That written, I want to add something that is less about law, consequences, or statues and more about your rights as a person when contacted by the police or any other agent of the state.

You have the right to remain silent.
Anything you say can and will be used against you in court.
You have the right to an attorney.
if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to represent you.

Anyone who has ever watched a police thriller knows that litany. I just typed it out from memory because I’m on a train and there is no internet access (technically there is internet access, it is so slow and spotty it is worse than no internet access). I’m willing to bet good money that anyone reading this knows the litany I’ve written above. Why then do so many people make inculpatory statements to the police? They know they don’t have to, they’ve seen and heard that they have the right to remain silent on TV 1000s times. They know they have the right to an attorney, Law & Order said so.

Here’s the problem: most people want to be useful. They want to help. They think “if I just talk to the police all of this will be cleared up and I can go home.” Maybe - maybe that’s true, but the more likely scenario is that the police officer talking to you and the detective questioning you think you have committed a crime. Why are you helping them? To them this isn’t personal, you’re not their friend. This is business. To put it in the simplest possible terms: if the police had an airtight case - would they bother getting a statement from you. No, because they didn’t need it. Talking to them to “clear the air” will only hurt you.

As a criminal defense attorney, I have never been grateful that a client made a statement. Never, in all the years I have practiced law. Not once. It never helps. You do not have to talk to the police, you do not have to agree to a search of your person or a search of your vehicle, or a search of your home (if the police have warrant, that’s a different story - but you still don’t have to talk to them other than to agree you are who you are).

I can hear people telling me right now, “But Mrs. Mehta - the police told me they don’t need a warrant to search my car.” Technically this is true. In Pennsylvania it was once true that the police needed a warrant to search your vehicle, and then for various reasons, we will not get into here that law changed, but the standard to search your car or vehicle has remained the same, the police still need probable cause to search your car. But you don’t need to make it even easier for them by saying, “sure officer, feel free to search my car, I am absolutely, 100% sure none of my friends have left anything in there that might come back to bite me. I am 150% sure the car I borrowed from my friend, who is always in trouble, is clean.” Refusal to consent to a search does not give rise to probable cause, but just about anything else you say will start to help the police make a case that they had probable cause to search your car/house/person. The police officer might say, “he was being evasive, she seemed nervous, his story kept on changing, she was speaking rapidly.”

And frankly, most of that is probably true. I know when I see red and blue lights behind me on the highway I quickly suss through the last 20 years of my life and briefly wonder if there is some terrible sin I have forgotten or an unpaid ticket that finally made its way into a computer system somewhere. 

So what are you to do?

Scenario 1

PO: Sir, we’d like to speak to you.

You: Officer, am I under arrest?

 PO: No
You: Am I free to go?

Police: Yes

 And call an attorney.

Scenario 2

PO: Sir, we’d like to speak to you.

You: Officer, am I under arrest?

 PO: Yes
You: I would like to speak to my attorney, here is their card.
I would not like to make a statement.

Don’t have a lawyer’s card? Print out mine, carry it with you, know your rights, and know to do when the rest of your life is on the line: