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How to Interact With the Police

By on Mar 25, 2011 | 9 comments

Of all the questions I get asked nothing is more important than how to interact with the police. It’s from that interaction that all consequences flow. Those consequences include being charged with a crime, fees and other expenses, and of course, jail time. If those consequences are something you want to avoid, read on.

Before I get into specific advice, a couple overarching themes:

If the police are talking to you, you are at risk

Miranda is a subject for another time, but here’s the short version:

  • Police do not have to read you your rights
  • If you are in custody, and if you are being interrogated, then if they don’t read you your rights then your statements can be tossed out. Just your statements, not the charges. No automatic dismissal for not being read your rights.
  • Thus, if you volunteer statements to the cops, there’s a decent chance they can and will be used against you.

The trick, if you want, is that these rights don’t magically appear when the police tell you about them. They are your Rights, inherent and yours until you waive them. So that first line, “Anything you say can and will be used against you” is very true. And it will be true before and after the police remind you of it.

If the police are talking to you in a non-casual, non-victim setting, it means they are investigating a crime. The police don’t know if you’re a criminal or an accomplice. Their job is to investigate the crime and book the people who may have contributed to it. If you are talking to the police, you are putting yourself at risk for both being charged with a crime, and being found guilty of that crime. That is their purpose in talking to you. Why make it easier for them? Which segues into the next point:

The police are not your friends

I know it sounds obvious, but people tend to try to please authority figures in stressful situations. A perfectly normal instinct, but not a good idea here. The reason is simply that the police have a job to do, and benefiting you is not it.

This has nothing to do with corruption or brutality or anything like that. Frankly, the majority of police I’ve met in my life are honest and thoughtful people. The issue is simply their job, investigating crimes and protecting society.

As I said above, if they’re talking to you in an official capacity, they are on the clock and looking for people to arrest. If you are in any way culpable, or they perceive you to be, they will try to elicit information to arrest you. Simple as that.

And let’s not kid around here, the police are very good at their job. If they perceive you’re scared they’ll either come across as more friendly and/or more aggressive. I’ve read enough police reports in my life to know some of these guys are quite talented. They’re pros.

Now it’s easy to read this and think “Well I’ll be smart and just won’t say anything.” And that is indeed the smart decision, but easier said than done. Reading these words on your screen, you’re clearly in a safe and secure space. Imagine instead you’re driving on a dark night and you see the distinctive red and blue lights flashing behind you. You pull over and spend some agonizing minutes before the cop comes to your window and shines a light in your eyes. Then it’s really on. Cool logic is a lot harder to pull off with the weight of authority bearing down.

But that’s ok, that’s why guides like this are written. If you remember anything, remember the two points here. If they’re interacting with you you are at risk, and the police are looking for reasons that end-result makes your life worse. Here are some more tips:

Stop Talking

Not to put too fine a point on it, but your chances go way up if you just stop talking. Lots of people think you must answer questions, but that you don’t have to be honest. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Making a false statement to a police officer is a crime. And this one is easy to run afoul of because 1) police are always acting in their official capacity, and 2) you can still be charged (although not always convicted) if you accidentally make a false statement. Transpose some digits on your work address? Mistakes happen and the consequences are severe.

But here’s the good news. While it is a crime to lie to the police, you have a Constitutional right to stay completely silent. The 5th Amendment permits you the option to not incriminate itself. Since anything you say can incriminate, you have the right to say nothing at all. You should probably invoke it. (Exception: as part of your privilege to drive you must hand over your identification upon request.)

For example, you get pulled over by the police. They ask “Have you been drinking tonight?” My response will always be “I’m sorry, I have nothing to say. Am I free to go?” That second part is important, but first

Police can lie to you

It doesn’t seem fair, but police can and will lie to you in their official, investigative capacity. It’s not very nice, but again, they’re not your friend. But it doesn’t matter because you have the same response, that you have nothing to say.

If the police tell you they saw you had 4 drinks at Bar X, don’t make the mistake of saying “No, I only had 2,” or “I was at Bar Y,” or “I’ve been burying this corpse all night.” Don’t even acknowledge their assertions. What does it get you? If they had a case they wouldn’t need to lie. Don’t give them ammunition.

Ask if you are free to go

This one is important for two reasons. The first is that if you are free to go, you should. There is far less chance of a mistake if you and the police are miles apart. While you are welcome to hang out and shoot the breeze with the police as much as you want, their capacity to detain you is limited. Some investigation, then either an arrest or your “release.” But since they don’t always tell you you’re free to go, you need to ask.

But the real reason is that if you’re not free to go, you’re being detained. While that’s unfortunate, it also triggers a lot of rights. For one, now that you’re under their custody, Miranda kicks in and they do have to remind you of them or lose out on future statements. For another, you get an attorney!

Ask for an attorney

Asking for an attorney is awesome. The lawyer will probably tell you to stay quiet. But by asking you get a break from any kind of interrogation, someone who will tell you the truth on what’s going on with your particular situation, and an advocate working for your behalf. Courts really, really hate it when people don’t get the attorneys they ask for, so if the police do try to interfere here your case gets a lot stronger. Asking for an attorney is awesome.

If you are pulled over by the police, you can call me. Dial my office line and press 7. There are also public defenders on call. The police should always give you these numbers if you ask for them.

Don’t do the voluntary tests

This is a specific DUI situation. You’re pulled over and the police think you’re drunk. They ask if you want to do some voluntary field sobriety tests. You know what these look like: walking a straight line, reverse alphabet, getting a light shined in your eyes, blowing into a preliminary breathalyser (PBT), etc. Taking these tests offered on the side of the road are essentially testifying against yourself, i.e. they are not to your benefit.

If you decline, and you should, the officer will say something like “if you don’t take these tests I’m going to have to rely on the evidence in front of me.” This is technically true, but implies you may be able to get out of your jam if you succeed on walking in a straight line. Don’t believe it. You were pulled over for a reason. Giving them more to work with just makes the charges stronger. The fact you refuse to take these tests cannot be used against you. So refuse!

The goal is to avoid a criminal conviction

Everyone I’ve talked to with personal experience agrees: spending the night in jail sucks. It’s scary, and the food is bad, and you’re in jail. But as much as spending the night in jail is not fun, having a criminal conviction is far worse.

Being convicted of a crime will alter your life forever. Of course you face heavy fines and jail time. But even when that’s done, you’ve got some new disclosures to make on job applications, immigration forms, apartment applications, etc. Fair or not, some places will see a conviction and instantly discard your application, whatever it is. Your insurance may shoot up, you may lose your job, etc. It’s not a good thing.

My job, the job of any attorney, is to craft you the best possible end-result. Yes sometimes that means pleading guilty in lieu of substantially more jail time. But sometimes it means fighting to get the charges deferred or dismissed. My job is far easier to accomplish if you give the prosecution less to work with. Far too often the only reason someone is convicted is their statements to the police. Less statements = less chance of conviction. Simple!

Sometimes people will ask if they will look guilty at trial because they refused to answer questions, or they ask for an attorney. Well no, because the jury should never hear it. The beauty of our system is that people are not punished for exercising their rights. Courts know it is human nature for the a jury to assume guilt in these situations, so they just exclude those statements completely. That means the police cannot testify you declined to answer their questions, or that you refused the sobriety tests, or that you asked for an attorney. They’re your rights to invoke.

This is pretty simple stuff, but enormously important. If your goal is to avoid a criminal conviction, as it should be, then simply stay quiet and leave, or ask for an attorney as appropriate. Lying, trying to be clever, trying to mollify the police, or anything else that involves having a conversation is just not worth it. Yes you may talk them out of the ticket, but you’re doing some high stakes gambling. Take the ticket, or spend the night in jail if necessary. You’ll think it was a small price when you get to hear the judge announce “case dismissed.”

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  • chad

    are the tips about refusing voluntary DUI field sobriety tests universal across the country? or specific to your region?

  • chad

    also, does that mean one should refuse the breathalizer also? not just the other things like walking the line, etc?

  • loucksj

    I’m curious: do you know how much this applies in Canada?

  • I’m afraid I don’t know how much this applies in Canada. I don’t even know how much applies in other states, e.g. statutes against lying to the police. Everything I write is Washington specific, and may not be appropriate for individual circumstances anyway.

    The breathalyzer is a complex subject for another time. But the short answer is contact an attorney beforehand and take their advice.

  • Peter Blaser

    Thanks for the information. I don’t live in Washington, but I have occasion to visit from time to time and this could be a help.

  • D. Mantel

    Personally, I will never take a breathalyzer. I am a diabetic. While I would love to explain to an officer why this matters, I am sure it is better to just refuse.
    As for field sobriety tests…they are bogus. I have seen a man pass every test, including the more ridiculous ones such as hopping about and looking like he is doing the hokey pokey, and still get hauled in for a blood test.

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  • Nicholas D.

    Insightful article. I’d also be interested in how to interact with police if they knock on your door.

  • Nicholas D.

    Noah, question: generally, when an officer places someone under arrest, are they required to tell the person what for? If so, when are they required to tell that: immediately, or later? Thanks and keep up the good work.

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