What should I do if the police want to interview me?
Sitting in a police interview room and being questioned by law enforcement is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences a person can have. Whether you’re a suspect in a crime or a witness the police have identified as someone who may have relevant knowledge about a criminal offence, the experience will undoubtedly be rife with anxiety.
In this article, I will outline how individuals in this kind of situation should respond, based on my years of successful practice as a criminal defence lawyer and advising clients who have been through it.
When the police contact you
If you receive a call from the police requesting to interview you in connection with a criminal investigation, it’s important to get as much information as possible from the officer. Here are some key questions to ask on that call:
- What is this in relation to/what is the crime they’re investigating?
- Am I being charged with something?
- Am I a witness in a criminal investigation?
The police are not required to provide all the details of their investigation to you at this point. They will usually give you some information regarding the nature of the investigation and your potential role in it. You should also ask the officer for their name and contact information, which a lawyer will need when they follow-up with the police on your behalf.
Remember, at this point, the investigation is active and ongoing. The police are interviewing “people of interest” to gain information that can help them either secure an arrest or close the case.
Reach out to a criminal defence lawyer
Your next call should be to a criminal defence lawyer. Even if the officer has told you that the purpose of the interview is to question you as a witness to a potential crime, it’s prudent to seek legal advice from an experienced criminal lawyer. I frequently represent clients who have initially been called into a police station as witnesses. At some point during that interview, the focus shifts to them as a suspect in the crime. It doesn’t happen in every case, of course, but it’s important to properly prepare for that eventuality, which is something an experienced criminal lawyer can help you prepare for if it occurs.
Choosing a lawyer who is the best fit for you and the situation is more of an art than a science. You should interview several criminal defence lawyers and tell them everything you know about the allegations or offence. Ask about their experience handling these types of cases and the results of the cases they’ve handled. By the end of that process, you should have a good indication of which one is the best fit for your situation.
Once a client retains me as their lawyer, I contact the police officer to collect as many details about the purpose of the interview as I can. If I learn that my client is a suspect in a criminal investigation and that the police are going to make an arrest, I will ask if they plan to release my client –– with or without conditions –– or if they intend to hold them for a bail hearing. If I know in advance that a bail hearing will be scheduled, there are critical steps my client and I can take to boost their chances of being released from custody while they await trial.
Identifying a surety is usually the first priority. A surety is a person who will come to the bail hearing and promise to a judge or justice of the peace that they will supervise the accused person while they are out on bail. I have written in more detail about sureties in a previous article that you can find here.
Guidance for an interview with police
There’s no template for how to respond to questions during a police interview. Each case is different, and my advice to a client will flow directly from the facts. Once I gather as many details from the police as possible, I ask my client to provide a detailed written account of what happened or what they know. As mentioned in a previous article, I specifically caution clients against “editing” details they don’t feel are relevant or useful to the case. Instead I tell them to provide all the details they have. In many instances, something my client didn’t view as relevant ended up being a critical piece of information in their defence. My legal background and experience in defending a variety of criminal cases give me a unique insight and an ability to reconstruct the various pieces of the puzzle.
My advice to a client about how they should handle a police interview depends on a variety of facts. At the top of the list is understanding their perceived role –– either as a witness or a suspect.
If I am confident that the police want to question my client as a witness only –– based on the footwork I have done to that point –– I usually advise my client to be straightforward with the officer and tell them as much as they know. I will review the types of questions they can expect from the officers and the best way to answer those questions. In our regular conversations with other people, we frequently speak in a very general way, but when you’re talking to a police officer, your responses must be well thought out and specific.
I caution my client against answering questions that might implicate them or cause the police to think they may be a suspect. Again, it’s important to point out that at this stage, we are working with limited information and don’t have all the details of the police investigation.
Sometimes a person who is being interviewed as a witness in an ongoing investigation will say something to the police that shifts the officer’s perception of their role from witness to accused. At that point, the officer has to stop the interview and warn them of their rights, including the right to speak to their lawyer.
If, on the other hand, I believe that my client is under investigation as a suspect in a crime, my advice will be different. At this point, we don’t have the Crown’s disclosure or any of the critical facts, such as who the complainant is and what the specific allegations are.
Most of the time, my advice is to say nothing to the police. If you’re being charged, the officer believes there’s enough evidence to lay a charge. What we don’t want to do at this point is to offer up information that could later be used against an accused person. A good offense is the best defence.
Often, people in this circumstance have an impulse to unburden themselves, admit to their role in the crime and accept the consequences. I have even worked with clients who admitted to police something that was not true to avoid the matter going to court.
I understand the urge to provide information, but in the criminal justice system, timing is critical. If you are a party to a crime, there’s a proper place and time to make that admission, but it is not during the police interview. Doing so removes the ability of your lawyer to negotiate on your behalf. Remember, anything you admit to during a police interview can later be used against you in court.
A good offence is the best defence
It’s essential to keep in mind that officers are trained to extract information from suspects and they use legitimate tactics to encourage a confession. The officer might say something like, “It’s better for you to say you’re sorry now,” or “this is your only chance to admit what you’ve done,” but that’s not true or in the best interests of an accused person. That’s precisely why we have a court process, trial and plea agreements.
It’s critical to prepare a client for what to expect during a police interview and how they should answer questions. For most people, this is their first encounter with the criminal justice system, so they are unprepared for what’s going to happen.
If I have advised my client to say nothing during the police interview, that doesn’t mean the officer will stop asking questions. Their job is to try to get information. While they can’t outright lie to someone in an interview, they frequently apply pressure and play on people’s emotions to extract information.
For example, the officer might say something like, “This is your only chance to give us your side of the story,” but that’s not true. That’s why the trial process exists.
The officer might ask leading questions to extract information, such as, “How would you feel if someone defrauded you or assaulted your sister –– wouldn’t you want that person to apologize?” All of their tactics are meant to encourage a person to talk, but it’s best to follow your lawyer’s instructions in these matters. There could be several interpretations of your responses, but once you’ve made them, they’re hard to walk back, even if what you told them isn’t what you meant.
Police can sometimes misrepresent or exaggerate the truth or use dubious tactics to get a suspect to give them information or confess to a crime. For example, in a sexual assault case where a rape kit was conducted, it’s not uncommon for the police to tell an accused person that they have their DNA. We know that the results of DNA take months, so at the time a sample is collected, it’s impossible to tell if the DNA is a match.
Choose experienced legal counsel
Dealing with the police and the criminal justice system is a serious matter. If the police have requested that you come into the station for questioning about a criminal offence, you have a right to a skilled and experienced legal advocate who can help you navigate this complex process. I have successfully represented numerous clients in a variety of criminal cases. If you have been charged with a criminal offence, call me for a free consultation.