When to Answer a Police Officer's Questions

Sometimes it's to your advantage to speak voluntarily with the police -- sometimes, not.

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Police officers may be as interested in clearing the innocent as in convicting the guilty. People can often clear their names as well as help the police find the real perpetrators by answering a few straightforward questions. For example, assume that Wally, a possible suspect, can demonstrate that “I was at dinner with Andre” at the moment a crime was committed. Wally both removes himself as a suspect and enables the police to concentrate their efforts elsewhere.

And legal rights aside, the truth on the street is that people often can make life easier for themselves by cooperating with police officers—as long as they don’t have a good reason not to. “Contempt of cop” has resulted in the arrest and even physical injury of more than one innocent person. When innocent people who are pulled over or questioned by police officers stand on their rights too forcefully, events can sometimes get out of control rather quickly.

Delay the Interview

People who are uncertain about whether to talk to a police officer needn’t feel trapped into giving an immediate “yes” or “no.” Being confronted by a police officer tends to make many people nervous and anxious, which renders them unable to give completely accurate answers. A good alternative is to delay the interview by saying something such as, “This is a bad time,” or, “I didn’t expect this so I’m a bit muddled now, please come back another time.” Among other things, delay provides an opportunity to consult with a lawyer, and perhaps to have the lawyer present during the interview, if the person ultimately decides to talk.

Recording the Interview

People who want to cooperate with police officers but fear that the police will distort their statements should insist that the police officers tape the conversation or prepare a written summary of it for the person to sign. The tape or summary minimizes a police officer’s opportunity to distort at a later time. But there is a potential downside to having the statement recorded. Once the words are on tape, a defendant will have to live with them if the case goes to trial, rather than argue that the police got it wrong.

This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D. 

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