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What You Should Know if You Are Questioned by the Police

KEY POINTS

  • You should always weigh the benefits of voluntarily cooperating with law enforcement against the potential costs.
  • People generally feel inclined to cooperate with authority figures, even when it may not be in their best interests to do so.
  • Innocent individuals are more likely to waive their Miranda rights.

Welcome to the second post in a multi-part series providing you with general information regarding the rights you retain when interacting with law enforcement (as well as what law enforcement can and cannot do at various phases in the process).

Questions

If law enforcement asks you to answer some questions, you are not required to acquiesce to this request (as discussed in last month’s post). If you agree to answer their questions, you can still choose to stop answering at any time (or to only answer certain questions).

If you do not wish to answer questions, you can ask whether you are permitted to leave. If they say no, you should not attempt to flee, but you are permitted to ask why you cannot leave.

Ultimately, you should always weigh the benefits of voluntarily cooperating with law enforcement against the potential costs. Generally speaking, if you are suspected of criminal activity, it is best not to speak to law enforcement without an attorney present.

It is far too easy to say something that police might interpret as suspicious (particularly if they already believe you are guilty of something). If you’re not sure whether you’re being questioned as a suspect, you can ask, but police do not have to answer—they are also permitted to lie.

Phenomenology of Innocence

People generally feel inclined to cooperate with authority figures (even when it is not in our best interest to do so). But, innocent individuals can be even more vulnerable to this pull.

Psychologists have long observed that innocent suspects are generally more vulnerable to submitting to requests from law enforcement. This phenomenology of innocence seems to stem from the naïve belief that their innocence will shield them.

Innocent suspects often overestimate the likelihood that their innocence will be discovered, leading them to agree to numerous legal procedures that could implicate them, because they believe that these procedures will lead to their eventual exoneration.

Nothing to Hide

Innocent individuals are more likely to waive their Miranda rights (e.g., submit to questioning), believing that they have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. They will also be more likely to agree to potentially suggestive identification procedures (e.g., being presented to an eyewitness in a show-up rather than as part of a lineup).

Overall, research indicates that innocent individuals feel less threatened (and less stressed) during investigative procedures, demonstrating their lack of fear that the accusation could result in lifelong consequences.

Ultimately, law enforcement officers are subject to the same cognitive biases as all other humans. Consequently, if an officer already believes you are guilty of something, then they are much more likely to interpret the evidence accordingly. For instance, it is surprisingly easy to provide police officers with inaccurate alibis.

Perhaps when asked where you were the previous weekend, you incorrectly recall that you were at a bar with some friends. While a neutral observer might realize the ease with which you could have confused your weekends unintentionally, someone who believes you have something to hide could apply intention to your mistake.

These biases are why talking to law enforcement without an attorney can be dangerous.

Next month, I will begin to discuss the dangers of submitting to an interrogation in the absence of an attorney.

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