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[EDIT: Please assume U.S. jurisdiction, since that's what relevant to me.]

I was recently reminded of this interesting talk, 'Don't Talk To The Police' by Regent Law Professor James Duane. Therein, he says (at 0:20) that he will "never talk to any police officer under any circumstances," and the bulk of his half of the video is him explaining why we should all resolve to do the same.

His 8 reasons are very compelling, but I can't seem to get over the utter absoluteness of the "never ... under any circumstances" bit.

What about these manufactured examples:

  • Suppose I come to discover physical evidence that an adult has been sexting a minor. In such a case I believe the law compels me to report my discovery to law enforcement. Not only must I talk to them to convey the problem, but I'm certain they will have followup questions for me.
  • Suppose my epileptic spouse has a seizure in our residence directly behind a locked bathroom door that swings inward-- hinges are on on her side-- and I call 911 after I tear out the door to aid her. A police officer shows up along with EMS, sees the broken door & blood from a chewed up tongue and gets suspicious. Let's say my spouse is still unconscious & can't corroborate. I'd need to communicate with EMS about my wife's condition & what happened, but the officer is standing right there listening. If I take the 5th, not only might my wife's medical care be impacted, but I will likely be arrested by default on suspicion of battery. (As defaults go, this would actually be prudent on the officer's part, but would completely suck for me.)
  • Suppose a police officer shows up at my house to investigate a burglary a few houses down the street, and is just knocking on doors asking neighbors if they saw or heard anything.

In which of those circumstances should I say "sorry officer, I'm not going to speak with you," and at what point?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Zizouz212, Shazamo Morebucks, user6726, Pat W., Martin Bonner Aug 9 '17 at 14:52

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    @user6726 there are jurisdictions where reporting serious crimes is a requirement on everyone – Dale M Aug 9 '17 at 2:06
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    @RyanV.Bissell, the absolutism of 'never talk' is absurd, so I wouldn't take the conclusion that it prevails from anything said above. The general notion of not talking to the police (without an attorney) is because as a lay person, the odds of a cop getting you to incriminate yourself for something you've done are high. They have the advantage almost every time in all situations. And in your very specific hypotheticals, I honestly hope you don't actually think 'don't talk' prevails. – A.fm. Aug 9 '17 at 3:40
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    @RyanV.Bissell to satiate the demands, perhaps you could consider rephrasing your post? Maybe something like "Professor Whatever, a law professor, espouses the notion that nobody should speak to the police ever. At what point do the 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure cease to protect me if I attempted to live out the professor's Fantasyland proposal?" (note: snark should not be included). I don't know if that'll stand up either, but worth a shot if you'd like more comprehensive answers. – A.fm. Aug 9 '17 at 4:20
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    The point is that "don't talk" is not a conclusion reachable by law, and there are no legal questions that help you. If you state particular moral principles, combined with current political fact, there can be an argument for never talking to the police, or for always doing so. The latter follows from the premise that the police always protect the rights of the innocent. But you are correct in identifying the average citizen's ignorance of law as being one of the fundamental facts leading to the "never talk" rule (and as I see it, the take-home point of Duane's lecture). – user6726 Aug 9 '17 at 4:37
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    @user6726 the question is rather "when should I waive my fifth amendment right to silence, in contravention of James Duane's advice, by talking to the police." The idea that someone should be able to evaluate correctly whether they're putting themselves at risk is precisely the notion the talk is meant to dispel. There is a litany of "I couldn't possibly get myself in trouble if..., right?" questions, to which the answer is always "wrong." – phoog Aug 9 '17 at 19:42
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The basic reason to avoid speaking to police is the concern that something that you say will provide the police with a basis for arresting you or someone you care about, or charging you or someone you care about with a crime.

Often, the reason that the police are talking with someone is specifically for the purpose of developing probable cause or a case to convict someone of a crime, when without your information they wouldn't have that information.

Statements far short of a confession to committing a crime can be critical lynch pins in establishing a case against you. For example, a statement that confirms that you were in a particular place at a particular time could link you to a crime that happened at or near that location at that time, when otherwise the police might have no idea where you were at that time and might never link you to the crime.

Also, it isn't uncommon for a request for police assistance to end badly, with the police assistance being deployed against you, or the means used by the police to resolve a situation having a deadly or undesired outcome.

On the other hand, often you will need to communicate with police. You may need to report a crime for insurance purposes. You may need help when you or someone around you is currently being victimized by someone committing a crime. Cooperating with police to provide information may help to remove someone who is a potential threat to you or someone you care about from the streets.

A better rule than "never talk to the police" is really more along the lines of "think twice before talking to the police".

You should thoughtfully evaluate if what you hope to gain from doing so is greater than the risk that a case against you as a suspect could be established and is also greater than the risk that if the police do respond when you communicate with them that the situation could end badly. As you do this, try to see yourself from a police officer's perspective. How will you look? Also, are you capable of saying what needs to be said and then stopping, rather than blabbering on out of nervousness.

A related notion is that you should be much more wary about talking to the police when the police initiate the conversation than you are when you are the one initiating the conversation. This is because ulterior motives on the part of police that could harm you or people you care about are much more likely when the police initiate the conversation than when you do.

Yet another consideration is how much you understand about the situation you are in, how sophisticated you are in dealing with the police, and how glib you are compared to the average person.

For example, there are people who a guilty of a crime and are in a situation that they understand well where they are at high risk of being implicated in a crime, where smooth talking can deflect police attention away from you and onto another person or a non-existent suspect. But, not many people are smooth enough and understand their circumstances well enough to pull that off.

In general, the more that you fit "the profile" of someone the police are likely to suspect of a crime (e.g. if you are a young adult African American man in a "high crime neighborhood"), the more you should assume that responding to a police inquiry directed to you is a bad idea.

  • "Statements far sort" ? – Ryan V. Bissell Aug 9 '17 at 5:31
  • Letter man to the rescue. – ohwilleke Aug 9 '17 at 5:32
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    I'm inclined to accept this answer, as I don't think a better one is likely. (Even if my question inadvertently solicited opinions, rather than facts of law.) – Ryan V. Bissell Aug 10 '17 at 2:16

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