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Let's say that an individual, let's call him Bob, has been contacted by the police who want to speak to him about an associate of his that was recently murdered. Bob is not under arrest, but Bob knows that the police may consider him a potential suspect.

Any lawyer worth their salt would say Bob should not speak to the police at all, and that is no doubt the safest action. However, if Bob doesn't speak with the police he can't provide them with any relevant information he may have about his associate, information that could assist the police in finding the associate's actual murderer.

So let's say Bob decides to speak to the police anyways, despite knowing the safest option is not to talk to them at all, in order to share some details he believes are relevant to the case and wants them to know. How can he go about doing so in the safest manner to him?

I imagine hiring a lawyer before speaking to the police would be the best option, but let's say Bob is poor and can't afford the cost of hiring a lawyer, and he can't find a pro bono lawyer either. If Judicial proceedings had started Bob would have a right to an attorney, but since he is only officially a person of interest at this point he would not be provided an attorney either. So what can he do to protect himself when attempting to assist the police?

  • Actually, you have a right to attorney upon arrest, not upon trial. The moment the cops read you your miranda rights, the only words out of your mouth should be "Lawyer?!" until someone in a suit introduces himself as a lawyer. – hszmv Jan 7 at 17:56
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    Did the potential suspect in your hypothetical scenario have any role in the crime? – Iñaki Viggers Jan 7 at 18:08
  • @IñakiViggers let's say no, but he has some personal information that he thinks may point the police in the right direction that they are unlikely to otherwise know. Perhaps the associate told Bob that they were about to meet a third party shortly before they were murdered that Bob thus thinks should be investigated. – dsollen Jan 7 at 18:19
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    @hszmv I know a lawyer is not limited to a trial, but it is limited to an arrest. In my hypothetical Bob was never arrested, only questioned. As such I don't believe he has a right to a lawyer if he chooses to speak to the police. – dsollen Jan 7 at 18:19
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    Why doesn't Bob just send the police an anonymous tip-off? – Greendrake Jan 11 at 3:09
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Assuming the DA's office is unable to help and the person is still interested in putting their freedom at risk by providing evidence to the police, they could avoid submitting to questioning by providing a written statement or affidavit with the evidence they want the police to have. Police are looking for someone to arrest for the crime, so any contact with them will put this person on their radar, but at least with written statements the person has a chance to go over and edit what they are providing and it is not off-the-cuff like a verbal interrogation. The other problem with interrogations is that the police are not restricted in their questioning like questioning in a trial, and are free to lie to the person they are interrogating to get them to answer a question a certain way. While another answer correctly notes that coerced testimony is inadmissible, it is surprising what kind of actions the police can engage in without being "coercive."

EDIT: Rewatching the video posted by Pete B., another reason to prefer a written statement over verbal interrogation is that the police may not accurately record or remember the person's testimony.

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The best course would be to contact the public defenders office and explain the situation to their intake or consultation services. Remember, you don't have to be going to trial to avail yourself of their services and sometimes, helping cops makes the cops suspicious about you (it would not be the first killer who cozies up to the police to learn what they know about his crime).

If the Public Defender thinks you're rich enough not to need their services, you should call criminal defense attorney practices. Most law offices will offer consultation free of charge as part of client intake, so they will be willing to hear your case and offer advice.

In either case, check with the lawyer that attorney client privilege is in effect. If they say yes, explain in detail to them, everything you know and want to discuss, even if some of it could criminally implicate you in this or another crime. Treat it as your deathbed confession and you know full well which circle of hell you're going to if the priest doesn't absolve you of sins (okay, too Catholic... but the Lawyer is not going to turn you in if the privilege is in effect... he could lose his license to practice law over it... we can make all the evil lawyer jokes we want, but this is one of the few sacred tenants of their profession.). Listen to his advise. Also see if you can find a second opinion. It's not that the first guy gave bad advice, but the next guy might give you something different.

If you still do not feel comfortable, then keep your mouth shut. If they arrest you for the murder, do not talk until you have an attorney present and prepare to tell him exactly what you did. Especially if you did do it. Always answer your attorney truthfully.

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what can he do to protect himself when attempting to assist the police?

If the person of interest is completely innocent (not to be confused with naive), he only needs to be clear about what he knows and how he obtained that knowledge. Having special knowledge about a crime does not by itself trigger a detective's suspicions, but falling in contradictions could do.

One main reason for the suggestion to speak in the presence of an attorney is the risk of inadvertent self-incrimination. But an innocent witness with candor and organized thoughts can provide testimony safely in that he does not have to juggle with conflicting versions (e.g., what to convey and what to conceal).

Although very unlikely, the agent(s) questioning the witness might indulge in intimidation for the sake of influencing his testimony. However, that practice sounds in coercion and as such is likely to be stricken (in court) as inadmissible "evidence".

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I would watch this video first.

According to the law professor giving the lecture, you cannot safely talk to the cops without a lawyer present. Innocence has nothing to do with it.

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    You can't talk to the cops safely period, having a lawyer stop you from answering doesn't stop them from testifying about your body language in response to a question. – IllusiveBrian Jan 7 at 20:30
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    If you want to communicate something to the police, then ask your lawyer to tell it to the police. If you can not afford a lawyer, then you have nothing to communicate to the police. – emory Jan 8 at 21:53

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