A police detective has called and left you a message, asking you to please call him back.
You have no idea why.
You haven’t done anything illegal, or knowingly witnessed a crime.
What should you do?
The short answer is do not respond. If he calls you again, you are within your rights to not answer.
If he comes to your home or place of work and wants to talk to you, you are under no obligation to speak with the detective, unless he has a search warrant or probable cause.
If you do end up face to face with a police detective at home or in the office, your safest option is to say politely say “I want to speak to my attorney before answering questions.”
If you’ve done nothing wrong, and the officer says: “You’ve done nothing wrong; you aren’t under investigation, we just want to ask you a few questions,” you should still say only “I’d rather not be interviewed.” If he persists, say “I want to speak to my lawyer before answering questions.”
In all cases, you should remain polite and follow the detectives instructions.
Why shouldn’t you talk?
The police could very well be conducting an investigation that you aren’t aware of, and you could be under suspicion or a person of interest. They are not required to to reveal that information to you. By talking to the police, you may unwittingly:
Make nervous mistakes when explaining where you were at the time of a crime that the police interpret as lies;
Be confused into saying the wrong things by the detectives who are under no obligation to tell you the truth;
Make statements to police that could, in combination with faulty eyewitness accounts, shoddy “expert” testimony, and bad luck, lead to you being convicted of a serious crime.
It’s not obstruction of justice
Not speaking to the police is actually your right, not obstruction of justice. Crime shows often shown the police threatening that if someone doesn’t cooperate with the investigation, she will be charged with obstruction of justice. They can threaten; but it is not illegal to refuse to help police solve a crime, unless you are actively trying to get in the way of an investigation.
The Fifth Amendment protects citizens from self-incrimination. Since the purpose of most police interviews is to help them obtain evidence against a suspect, you cannot be forced to speak to the police, even if they claim you’re not under investigation. This applies to everyone—even those with nothing to hide. The distinction between witness and a suspect is often blurred and police may re-classify a witness as a suspect later on in the investigation.
Not letting them in doesn’t make you look guilty
If police officers come to your door, the Fourth Amendment allows you the right to politely ask them to leave if they are without a search warrant or evidence of probable cause. They may ask to take a look around your house, and you may feel since you have nothing to hide, why not let them in?
The truth is you really have no idea what they are seeking. It could be something you are not aware is in your home. You could be under investigation due to someone else’s illegal activities that you are in the dark about. Letting the police into your home leads to uncertainty—you don’t know what will happen. Your best course of action is to politely ask them to leave and politely refuse to answer questions.
You believe you should help
Even if you feel like you want to help with an investigation, protect yourself and your rights by calling an attorney first. Politely tell the police you want to call your attorney. Place the call, and let your attorney handle it from there. For your protection, all communication with law enforcement should be handled with your attorney present, or between your attorney and law enforcement.
If you have questions about obstruction of justice, or how to handle a telephone call or home visit by police, give our expert criminal defense attorneys a call at 703-492-4200. It is much easier to know and protect your rights in advance than it is to be facing criminal charges after what you perceive is an innocent or helpful conversation with police.
DISCLAIMER: The results of every case depend on factors unique to that case, and Nichols Zauzig does not guarantee or predict results in similar cases.