Speak the truth or say nothing at all

Many criminal defense clients come to their lawyer with one of two problems – they talked to detectives before calling us, and gave a complete statement admitting guilt; or they talked to detectives before calling us, and they may have lied to detectives about what happened.  In most cases, either is not good.  I wonder how many of these people would have been in a better situation but for one very important value instilled in them by their parents – always tell the truth.  We want to know what happened, we want the truth about it, and for most parents this is one of the most important lessons we teach our children.

We tell adults, do not talk to the police.  Ever.  This is a dead horse I’m beating, I know – it’s been talked to death on blogs, in articles, on websites, and in Youtube videos.  There are plenty of reasons why you should not talk to the police when they ask you to come in for an interview and you have not been charged yet, or if they knock on your door.  Usually, if police want to question you they are not trying to clear your name.  And, you cannot talk your way out of it.  Either 1) they have enough evidence to charge you and they are looking for a statement to seal the deal, in which case you are getting arrested anyway; or 2) they don’t have enough evidence to charge you and they are looking for something they can use as probable cause; in which case if you talk to them you are giving them what they need to charge you.

Police detectives are trained to extract a statement from you.  You are not trained to avoid giving that statement – if you are verbally sparring with a detective about whether or not you are guilty, you are going to lose.  Most people don’t realize that the police aren’t necessarily looking for a “confession,” although they would appreciate one.  If your statement is not consistent with statements given by other suspects or witnesses, that can be used to support probable cause.  If your statement is not consistent with your own prior statements, or if a future statement you make is not consistent with the present one, that could be used to support probable cause.  You could be confessing to a crime and not realize it.  You may not realize that you are confessing, or you may not realize that what you are admitting to is a crime.  Even if you did not commit a crime, things that you say might later be called an admission by the officer, depending on the circumstances.

Ok.  What I really wanted to talk about, before I got sidetracked, is what values we teach our children and why some adults who come into contact with police may be doomed from the start as a result of those values.  Most people are trying to teach values to their children – two common ones are 1) trust the police, they are there to help; and 2) always tell the truth, no matter what.  When we tell our children, always tell the truth no matter what, we are implying that they should always speak and always tell the truth – yet this can get them into serious trouble down the road.

Clearly, there are times when our children may get hurt by speaking and telling the truth.  In an extreme example, imagine that our child, now a young adult, has just killed a man defending himself.  Detectives are now interrogating little Billy, convinced that Billy has committed murder and belongs in prison.  Once Billy starts talking, answering leading questions, unaware of what the legal requirements of self-defense are, he may talk himself into an arrest and subsequent conviction for murder.  Worse, he may understand the seriousness of his situation and may color the truth to make it sound better, changing key facts that are later contradicted by other witnesses or by Billy’s own statements.

There are times when the best thing to do is to say nothing at all, and, given the slow but steady evolution of the United States into a police state, I think this is something I need to teach my children starting now.

I have taken to telling our kids to tell us the truth or say nothing at all, and in most cases I am not going to punish them or fuss at them solely for choosing to remain silent.  But if they do choose to talk, it had better be the truth.  They are 9, 7, and 3 – for now, I think that I need to tell them to trust the police and to go find a police officer when there is trouble.  When they are old enough to understand why, I will talk to them more about why they should not talk to police and why it is not always the best idea to go find a police officer if there is trouble.

We only get one shot at instilling values in our children when they are young – what do you think?

2 Responses to “Speak the truth or say nothing at all

  • Great post. Something to consider is that since 1989, 312 people have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing. Of the 312, approximately 1/3 confessed. Something is very wrong with interrogation techniques when you have upwards of 1/3 of all confessions be false. The most commonly used interrogation technique is the Reid technique. With this technique, the interrogator intentionally lies to the suspect to get information. To add to this, the book “Anatomy of Interrogation Techniques,” published by Reid & Associates, provides over 2000 interrogation “themes” which are nothing more than suggested lies. The take away is that police are trained to intentionally lie to get whatever they want. That’s why I think you hit the nail on the head with this statement, “There are times when the best thing to do is to say nothing at all, and, given the slow but steady evolution of the United States into a police state, I think this is something I need to teach my children starting now.”

    There is so much more to be written on this subject. The psychological need to please and gain approval from authority (police) is one of the most overlooked aspects in false confessions. I rarely see this discussed. What are your thoughts?

  • Thanks JR. I think that the need for approval from authority is a factor for some. For others, the ridiculous notion that they can talk themselves out of something gets people into hot water. Some people are more susceptible to coercion than others – for some people, a detective suggesting that the only way they will get home to their family is to “tell the truth,” ie confess, is enough to make them say whatever the detective wants to hear. Mental or emotional illness probably play a role in many coerced confessions as well.

    I have the Reid technique book, but I haven’t seen Anatomy of Interrogation Techniques before. I may order that one next.

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