It likely comes as no surprise that I, as an attorney recommend a person to speak to an attorney prior to talking to the police. However, I have always thought of myself as a different type of attorney who tries to be honest with people. As part of this, I have made it a point of my practice to let people know when they don’t need an attorney and when they can do things on their own. For example, if the case is relatively straight forward where there is low likelihood of problems arising and if problems do arise, the problem(s) can easily be corrected I oftentimes will tell a person that they do not need an attorney. However, when police contact someone and want to question the person, it is imperative to contact an attorney immediately.
It’s imperative to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately because providing answers to what may seem like simple or innocuous questions can quickly turn a person from a witness into a suspect in a matter of seconds. An even worse situation is where the police tell a person that they are a suspect and the police are “looking for your cooperation” and that the police “want you to give answers so you can help yourself.” Statements like these could not be any further from the truth.
Growing up, we are taught “be honest with police” and “police are good people.” While I certainly do not want to disparage police officers, when it comes to interrogations, it does very little to benefit you to be honest with the police especially if there any chance whatsoever that you could be implicated in wrong doing.
The police have a job to do—protect the public. While certainly not true with every single police officer, as part of protecting the public, officers will go to great lengths to get people to confess to crimes. If a police officer can convince a suspect to confess to a crime, the officer’s job becomes a lot easier and they can get a conviction much faster.
Generally, during the police academy cadets are trained using the “Reid Technique” based on the program developed by John E. Reid. I have never taken any courses on this technique and, at best, I am novice at the technique. However, I highlight the technique to demonstrate some of the subtle and incredibly convincing techniques that the police will use to convince a suspect to confess. I will highlight some of those techniques that I have seen police successfully use in the past.
A common technique that I have seen the police employ in the past is the implicit promise of leniency. For example, detectives will often tell suspects that the suspect is going home after the interrogation or that the officer will “talk to the magistrate” so that the magistrate sets the suspect’s bail low if the suspect cooperates. I have seen police officers tell suspects that they “will talk to the district attorney and vouch for them.” I have seen police officers tell suspects “the DA is an old friend of mine and he owes me a couple of favors. I can use one of the favors he owes me to help you if you tell me what happened.” It’s important to keep in mind that so long as no explicit promises are made courts routinely uphold the validity of the interrogation/confession. When I use the phrase “explicit promise” I mean the police are not allowed to tell a person, “if you confess to X, I will give you Y sentence.”
Another common technique I have seen employed is that the police will tell the suspect that the interrogator didn’t think the act was intentional. For example, I have seen officers tell suspects in child rape cases that it was the thirteen (13) year old girl’s fault for “acting like a tease” or “being flirtatious.” This technique is an obvious attempt to have the suspect view the interrogator as “being on their side” or otherwise sympathetic to the suspect. Again, this could not be any further from the truth. Make no mistake about it, if the police are interrogating a suspect, the officer’s job/goal is to obtain a confession.
Another variation of the “being on their side” tactic that I have seen is where the police are questioning a rape suspect and the detective will tell the suspect, “I think you put your penis in her butt. However, if you tell me the truth about what happened, I will include in my report that you put your penis in her vagina.” Again, this is another attempt by the detective to portray to the suspect that the detective is “on their side” because the suspect believes the punishment will be reduced by a seemingly less severe act. However, unbeknownst to the suspect, it is not relevant under Pennsylvania law whether the suspect put his penis in the victim’s vagina or butt because the statute uses the phrase “sexual intercourse” which includes the vagina and butt.
The question becomes, I know I need to talk to an attorney, but what can the attorney do for me? The attorney can objectively analyze the case and begin investigating the case. My experience with these types of cases has been the police are more willing to talk to me as an attorney than they are suspects. Further, when the interrogation happens, suspects very often do not know what type of evidence the police have against them and it’s important for me as the attorney to begin investigating the case.
When assessing whether a client should speak to a police officer, I need to figure out three (3) main things: 1) what the police know; 2) what the police don’t know; and 3) the most important question is can the police find out what they don’t know without my client’s confession? If the police can find out what the suspect knows without the confession, then it really does not harm the suspect into confessing because the suspect will garner favor with the DA. For example, the police may simply want to “put the icing on the cake” to solidify the case against other co-defendants. In cases such as this, I have no problem if my client confesses because my client suffers no detriment. However, I have had other cases where the police had very little information against my client and had no way of prosecuting the case without my client’s confession. In cases such as this, I do not want my client to speak to the police at all. For example, I represented an individual who was suspected of raping his young niece. The police did not have any information on him and the police did not have any physical proof to tie him to the crime. My client did not talk to the police and no charges were ever filed.
In conclusion, when the police contact a person, it’s important to consult with an attorney immediately. Cases are oftentimes won and lost based on the suspect decides to deal with the police at this early stage.