You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

I recently saw the news that the defense attorney / law professor who made the videos Don’t Talk to Cops (part 1, part 2) wrote a book on the subject. It’s called You Have the Right to Remain Innocent, and it’s a short and easy to read book which covers much of the same material, but in greater depth, with updates for recent caselaw, and without the speed-talking.

Since the basic thesis of the book is stated in its title, which is also a reasonably summary of the book’s actionable advice, it is reasonable to ask what is in the book which justifies opening the book to look at its pages. There’s actually a lot.

The book does starts with some caveats, perhaps most notably that he clarifies he’s talking about speaking with the police when they come to you, unsolicited, to ask you questions about the past. It is both a legal requirement and good sense to readily comply with the request to identify yourself and explain what you are doing in the moment, where you currently are. One of his examples is if you are breaking into your own house because you locked yourself out and a policeman asks you what you are doing, do tell him that this is your house and you don’t have your key. He mentions some other cases when you must talk with the police.

The other very notable caveat is that he takes some pains to point out that every member of society owes a great debt to the men and women who serve as police, who take personal risk to do a difficult job that keeps us safe. Throughout the book, he makes it clear that he isn’t talking about bad people, but (in the main) good people in a bad situation, which is the present criminal legal system in the United States. It is a system which sometimes convicts innocent people along with guilty people, and for reasons he makes clear throughout the book, his primary concern is giving innocent people the tools needed to avoid the pitfalls of this dangerous system. Good people make mistakes, and the mistake of a police officer or a prosecutor or a judge can cost an innocent person decades in prison. (He uses more than a few cases where the person convicted was later conclusively proved innocent by DNA evidence (often decades later) to show how wrong things can go for innocent people.)

The book has more than a few interesting insights into problems with the criminal justice system—perhaps most notably being the way that no living person has any idea even how many crimes are defined by the law, let alone what they all are—but I think its greatest value lies in the examination of particular cases where he goes on to show how even very trivial statements, which are true, can become damning evidence in light of other things which a person may not know and has no control over. The case where a man admitted to having dated a woman some time before the crime he was convicted of happened, in the neighborhood where that crime happened, helped to send a man later exonerated by DNA evidence to prison. Coincidences happen, but not all juries believe that they do.

And it is this sort of thing which is the main value of reading the entire book, I think. It is so very easy to slip into the mindset of wanting to give into the urge to cooperate, to be helpful, to be willing to answer any question which is not directly incriminating (and if I’m innocent, how could any question be directly incriminating?) which takes more than a little beating down by seeing over and over again how even minor admissions of completely true and innocent things can be disastrous. The book presents information, but I think equally reading it constitutes training. If one were ever to face a police interview it would be a very stressful situation, and when stressed we tend to forget what we know and fall back on our habitual reactions. Only through training ourselves by seeing many situations we could all too easily be in is it likely that we will remember to do what we should.

The final two chapters of the book, which are much shorter than the first, deal with the specifics of how to go about exercising one’s right to remain innocent in a practical sense. He covers many instances of how people have accidentally incriminated themselves when invoking their fifth amendment right, as well as how people have accidentally failed at refusing to talk to the police and asking for a lawyer. And again, it’s not so much knowing what to do that’s the real benefit of reading this book, but learning what not to do, and why not to do it.

The book is a short, easy read which is well written, and I think valuable for anyone living in America. I found it a valuable read even after watching the videos I linked above, and strongly recommend it.

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