Don’t Talk to the Police

Law school professor and former criminal defense attorney tells you why you should never agree to be interviewed by the police.

10 Rules for Dealing with Police

Why You Should Remain Silent and Ask to See a Lawyer Even if You’re Innocent

Remember that you should still say I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. Innocent people are wrongfully convicted of crimes all the time. This happens for a variety of reasons, such as:

•     matching the description of a particular crime
suspect
•     being too near a crime scene (in the wrong place
at the wrong time)
•     hanging out with people who have been
engaging in criminal activity, thus appearing
to be their accomplice
•     being framed by a lying witness (and sometimes
the false witness is a law enforcement officer)

Example: Sam was arrested in connection with a shooting. The arresting officer asked him what happened, and Sam said, “Hey man, it wasn’t me. I was there, but I didn’t shoot anybody. There was this other guy, I don’t know who he was, but he’s the one who did the shooting.” Well, it turns out that the police had also taken a statement from Willie, an eye witness. Willie didn’t get a good look at anyone’s face, but he was certain that there were only two men present—the victim and the shooter. So now Sam had a real problem. He’d admitted to being at the scene of the crime and, of course, that “unknown man who did the shooting” was nowhere to be found. Since Willie testified convincingly there was only one other man beside the victim, the jury concluded that the shooter was Sam—since Sam had already admitted that he was present at the incident.

If the legal system worked perfectly, these mistakes would be corrected in court—but the system is flawed. Judges, jurors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and probation officers all have limitations stemming from racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, plain stupidity, etc.1 Moreover, in any court case, the parties’ resources play a big part in the outcome. (Here in the United States, you get the best justice money can buy.) And money notwithstanding, even the best criminal defense lawyers can’t always expose a witness who lies really well.2

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the officer who’s interviewing you is acting as an impartial judge, sorting out who’s naughty and who’s nice. The officer is building a case. That’s his job. And if you answer questions, you’re giving the officer building materials to construct a case against you. Contrary to popular opinion, truth is not your shield—at least not when you’re being questioned and arrested. The time to “explain everything” is when you’ve got your attorney with you, so you can be sure you won’t be misled, misunderstood or misquoted.

1.  See: Suggested Reference Material on Discrimination in the Legal System.

2.  Consider David Harris, who murdered a cop.  Harris, a good liar, got Randall Adams convicted and sentenced to death for this crime.  The case was the subject of a documentary film by detective-director Errol Morris, who played a critical role in Adams ultimate release: The Thin Blue Line, directed by Errol Morris (1988; Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2000).  Unfortunately, for every wrongfully convicted prisoner who is helped by people like Morris or by the network of Innocence Projects, many more unjustly convicted prisoners go unaided.

Reference Material on Discrimination in the Legal System

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. The New Press, 2010.

Deals with race-related and social, political, and legal phenomena of Mass Incarceration in the United States and attempts to apply the term ‘The New Jim Crow’ to the situation of African Americans in the contemporary United States. The name derives from the original Jim Crow laws that prevailed in the states of the former Confederacy of the U.S. through the 1960s.

Walker, Samuel, Miriam Delone, and Cassia C.  Spohn.  The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America, 3d ed.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003.

Extremely well organized.  Provides the definitions and statistics you need to have a useful discussion of inequities in the legal system.  Covers police, court, prison, and the death penalty.  Includes convenient overviews of studies and theories on discrimination in criminal justice.  (315 pages)

Mauer, Marc.  Race to Incarcerate: The Sentencing Project.  New York: New Press, 1999.

Investigates race and class in the context of prison.  Examines the “Tough on Crime” Movement and the War on Drugs.  Also brief but useful discussion of news coverage concerning crime and incarceration.  (194 pages)

The Sentencing Project: http://www.sentencingproject.org/.

Various reports analyzing disparate treatment in sentencing on the basis of race, class, and gender.  Also short “fact sheets,” useful for overviews or quick research.

Building Blocks for Youth: http://www.buildingblocksforyouth.org/.

Contains and cites many studies on minority youth in the justice system.  Some studies concern the treatment of young women, and the report ¿Dónde está la Justicia? relates to Latino youth.

Harris, David. Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work.  New York: New Press, 2002.

Everything you need to know about racial profiling: history, important court cases, and statistical studies.  Moving descriptions of the impact of racial profiling on individuals, along with explanations of its unconstitutionality, and its ineffectiveness as a law enforcement technique.  (227 pages)

Berry, Mary F.  The Pig Farmer’s Daughter and Other Tales of American Justice: Episodes of Racism and Sexism in the Courts from 1865 to the Present.  New York: Knopf, 1999.

Stories showing the effects of sexism and racism in court cases, both during trial and on appeal.  Includes cases involving extramarital sex, gay and lesbian relationships, prostitution, seduction, child support, abortion, rape, and incest.  (243 pages)

Miller, Jerome G.  Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Fairly intellectual analysis of racism in the legal system, but full of graphic accounts of official mistreatment and the horrifying complacency of those who condone it.  (242 pages)

Reiman, Jeffrey.  The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice.  New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Very lively presentation on the nature of crime, and how class and race influence who is punished.  Reminiscent of Michael Moore (director of Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, etc.), but with an explicitly Marxist slant.  (178 pages)

Leonard, Kimberly K., C.  Pope, and W.  Feversherm, eds.  Minorities in Juvenile Justice.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.

To understand every word of these articles, you’d need to have taken a class in statistics (and still remember some of it), but most of the tables and discussions are pretty clear.  Chapters 2 and 7 summarize interviews with police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges, exposing their attitudes concerning race and class.  (216 pages)

Lynch, Michael and E.  Britt Patterson, eds.  Justice With Prejudice: Race and Criminal Justice in America.  Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston, 1996.

A collection of rather academic articles, but Chapter 5 provides important statistics and analysis on racism in media coverage of crime.  (169 pages)

Up to date statistics on law enforcement, conviction, and sentencing can be obtained online.  Good websites include:

Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/

National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS)
http://www.ncjrs.gov/

Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics Online (SCJS)
http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/

However, the data is often presented in such a way that it’s hard to spot the instances of systemic discrimination.  You may have to draw on several different tables and do a little math to get useful information.  Before you start number-crunching, read some of the books listed above to see how they analyzed the statistical material, because you may want to follow their approach.  The agencies that publish these statistics have staff who can help you find the right data, especially if you explain really clearly what you’re after.  Check the websites to get up-to-date contact information (including 800 numbers)—look under “Contact” for BJS and NCJRS, and under “About Sourcebook” for SCJS.

There’s a great deal of reference material on discrimination in the legal system.  The sources listed above are easy to find in large public libraries, up-to-date, and for the most part reasonable to read (not written for the edification of other academicians). They’re listed in order of how useful and readable they seemed. The number of pages listed for each book is generally just the text, not the notes, indices, bibliographies, etc.

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