Talking to police can cause problems

Posted Nov. 15, 2009, at 7:25 p.m.

Q. The police called yesterday and wanted to talk to my 15-year-old son about a bicycle that was stolen in our neighborhood. They didn’t accuse him of anything, but it is clear they think he had something to do with taking the bike. They said my son needs to go down to the police station to talk with them about it. Should he do this? Can I insist on being with him? Should we speak with an attorney first?

A. The short answers to your questions are “no,” “yes” and “absolutely.” The longer answer is that a citizen has no obligation to speak with the police. Speaking with them when there seems to be a question of a crime usually creates problems for the naive citizen who thinks that it really is just a friendly conversation. The police may assure you that all they want is help, that they will not charge your son with a crime based on what he tells them, or even that he must speak with them. You should not take these assurances at face value.

You have the right to be present during any questioning of your son by the police. The police are not permitted to question a juvenile without the juvenile’s legal custodian present unless the custodian (usually the parent or parents) gives consent or the police have made a reasonable attempt to contact them and believe there is ongoing or imminent criminal activity about which they need to question the juvenile. It makes sense for you to speak with a lawyer before you have further contact with the police. This will help ensure you protect your son’s rights, because the police do not have his constitutionally protected freedoms foremost in their minds when they seek to question him.

The police do not need to tell you the truth and they are not necessarily trying to help your son. In reality they are trying to gather information about a crime. If that information ends up indicating your son may be involved, the police will likely serve him with a summons or arrest him despite their promises.

The police have the ability to summons your son to appear in court. This is an option the police can use instead of arresting a person. The summons must be served at least 48 hours before the court date. While you need not comply with a police request for an interview (or conversation or interrogation), a person summoned must appear in court on the date and time indicated. Generally, if you receive a summons to appear in court, it is a good idea to speak with a lawyer about your rights regarding the case. You have a right to an attorney at every stage of the court process.

Often, the police will not be pleased when you let them know you will not cooperate. The police can be persistent and imposing (after all, they have uniforms, guns, badges and an air of authority), but regardless of how often they contact you asking for information, you do not have to meet with them.

The police do not have the right to compel you to speak.

You have no obligation to speak with the police.

The police do not have a right to interview or interrogate you.

You have a right to silence, and guilty or not, your best option is to exercise that right and tell the police, as politely as possible, that you will not talk to them.

This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. E-mail AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to “Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, Maine, 04402-1329 will be forwarded to the LRIS.

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