Nunatsiaq Online
COMMENTARY: Nunavut December 14, 2016 - 1:10 pm

Legal Ease, Dec. 14

Should you talk to the police?

JAMES MORTON

The criminal lawyer’s default position is always “no” and there is much to be said for that.

As we have all seen on television, anything you say can be used against you in court later, if you are charged with an offence.

There is an old lawyers’ saying: “more men are hanged by their tongues than by their necks,” meaning people often talk themselves into jail. Certainly I have seen many cases where, but for statements to police, a conviction would have been difficult or impossible.

And, to be clear, you do not have to talk to the police. Sometimes, in some limited cases (driving for example), you have to produce identification and proof you are insured. Once in a rare while you need to provide a breath or even a blood sample. But you never have to have a “chat” with police.

One thing to remember is that just because you have a right not to speak to the police does not mean they cannot talk to you.

Even if you say, “I am saying nothing” the police can just keep talking, sometimes for hours. If you have decided to say nothing then just fold your arms, close your eyes and ignore the police questioning. Eventually they will give up (but it may take a while).

All that said, a blanket refusal to speak to police may be overly simplistic.

First, most of the time, the police are not looking for evidence against the person they are speaking to. They are trying to find out information about an incident and you may be able to give information that could help someone who is in trouble.

If, for example, the police are looking for a missing elder, your information that she was seen an hour ago at the co-op might save a life.

Similarly if you saw an accident—say you were just walking to your building and saw an ATV hit a water truck—letting the police know what you saw would make sense. You are not in any risk in either case.

Second, sometimes even if you are at risk, telling the police what happened may be the best idea but—WARNING WARNING WARNING—this is one time where you must speak to a lawyer first and proceed with great care.

Never ever speak to the police when you know you are suspected of committing a crime without talking to a lawyer first. If you have any doubt about what you are doing, keep quiet.

When might you agree to talk to the police? Suppose you are not guilty of a crime? That is NOT a time to explain what happened. If you are suspected of a crime, talking to the police will almost never help you; save your story for later.

But if you are guilty, you might admit the offence if you are remorseful and you are going to plead guilty anyway. Again, you need to talk to a lawyer and get her insight, but sometimes an early and full statement to police is given real consideration by the judge on sentencing.

There are some other, rare occasions when talking to the police is sensible—say in the context of a child welfare matter where the real concern is losing the child and the criminal charge is fairly minor.

All that said, make sure to talk to a lawyer before you say anything to the police. If you are in doubt at all, saying nothing is wise—you can always make a statement later.

James Morton is a lawyer practicing in Nunavut with offices in Iqaluit. The comments here are intended as general legal information and not as specific legal advice.

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