Parents of Offenders

What To Do When the Police Come Knocking

Responding to Police Inquiries

The American criminal justice system is a cold and cruel machine.  The system is designed to a) learn of the crime, b) locate and apprehend the bad guy, c) present a case for the bad guy to be found guilty in a court of law, and d) sanction the then criminal.  It’s just this simple.  The American criminal justice system isn’t about fixing people, it’s about punishing people.  And, sadly, even with this understanding, most Americans still support it.  After all, the cops are the good guys, right?

This article presents an example of a real-world situation in which a child has committed a real-world crime.  It suggests a quick method of mitigation and then provides steps to take if mitigation is not possible.  The idea is that through the example presented, parents can visualize a situation they could theoretically one day be exposed to.  And then, in an effort to prepare parents for if the worst is to occur (a true criminal investigation into a serious violation of criminal law), steps are given to help shield a child from criminal liability and exposure.

The Example

Let’s imagine that your kid has called a taxi, used said taxi to go to his girlfriend’s house, paid the taxi for the trip there, and on the way back, ran out of money.  So, he jumps out of the taxi and makes a break for it.  He manages to get back inside the house undiscovered, but then there is a knock at the door.  It’s the police asking if you have a son who looks like the suspect in a crime, the crime of larceny for failure to pay for a taxi ride.  What do you do?

Being the upstanding citizen that you are, you respond to law enforcement that you have a kid, but that they are asleep.  The police officer asks you to call your son downstairs, and as he walks down the stairs, the taxi driver identifies him as the culprit.  The right decision from a parent’s perspective is to question their child and make them know that what they have done is wrong and to punish them for this wrongdoing.  But is it right to allow the police to intervene?  Is it a good idea to allow the American criminal justice system into the household to handle discipline?  Now we get to much more challenging questions.

From a criminal defense perspective, the only correct answer is to shield your child from legal exposure.  This means addressing the taxi driver, explaining how sorry you are for the misunderstanding (and your bonehead kid), and offering to pay the tab.  God willing, it will end there.  God willing, the kid hasn’t committed any other crimes that evening that the taxi driver or the police know of (like leaving a backpack containing drugs in the taxi).  If not, things could get dicey, and in a hurry.  At that point in time, the following steps would need to be employed, and in short order.

Decide on Allegiance

This is your child we’re speaking of.  And the American criminal justice system is not a forgiving one.  As such, your allegiance must reside with your child.  While many parents would agree with this belief, many aren’t prepared to actually put this allegiance into practice, and this can cause them to engage in conduct that could harm their child in criminal prosecution.

If you find yourself in such a situation, take a breath and focus your energies on protecting your child.  Understand that the police are not there to be your friend, they are not there to help resolve the matter in an informal manner, and they will most likely not respond with mitigation in mind.  After all, they are knocking on your door in an attempt to apprehend the culprit of a crime, a culprit they see as deserving of arrest and adjudication.

With this understanding that the American criminal justice system is an adversarial one — the government verse you and your child — you are ready to move forward in protecting your child.

Listen, And Quietly

The way to prepare and win a battle — make no mistake, this is a battle — is to first understand it.  You need to understand what conduct your child has allegedly engaged in.  You need to understand what the evidence is.  And you need to understand the players involved.  In the above example, the players are the taxi driver, your child, and the police officer.  The evidence consists of the taxi driver’s statement and, if the kid did leave any property in the taxi, then that, too.

This is not the time for explanations or hedging one’s bets.  It’s you and your child against the government.  So, prepare yourself and do so by making as few assertions or statements as possible and listening with all of your might.  Knowing what the evidence is, and not providing any additional evidence through statements and such, is vital at this stage of the game.

Invoke Your and Your Kid’s Rights

Once it is clear that a criminal investigation has commenced (this being the point at which law enforcement is not just going to drop the matter), it is time to stop answering any questions about the event at issue.  The police cannot require you to provide evidence (either physical or verbal) against yourself or your child without a very specific and targeted warrant.  As such, this is the point in time when you should invoke both your and your child’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.  This can be done by simply stating, “I am invoking my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and so is my child.  Any further inquiries can be directed to our attorney.”  And that’s it.  From that point on, the police are no longer allowed to ask you any questions without your attorney present.

While it always amazes counsel that someone would admit anything to law enforcement, an absurd amount of suspects do.  They seem to think that law enforcement is going to be understanding or will drop the matter if they admit to a small portion but through the lens of the best-case scenario.  This is plainly not the case.  Once a criminal investigation has been formally launched, all law enforcement care about is apprehending the culprit and obtaining as much damaging evidence as possible so that any filed charges will stick in a court of law.  The sooner you understand this, the better it is.

A Special Note to Parents About Staying Silent

Even though you are not the one being accused of committing a crime, anything you say can be used against your child at a later date.  So, no matter what your instincts might be suggesting, never admit to any culpability on your child’s behalf.  If your child told you that they did run from the taxi driver, do not relate this to the police.  It will simply go in their report, which, if the case results in charges being filed, will be read by the judge or heard by a jury.  Protect your kids by remaining silent and disclosing as little as possible about their involvement in anything illegal.

Likewise, if your child starts to make an admission, stop them right away.  Even though they are a minor, their admission can be fatal to their legal defense.  There is a common myth concerning Miranda statements that the police have to read you your rights before questioning you and the same with your child.  This is plainly not the case.  The police have to read you your Miranda rights once they have determined that a crime has been committed and that you are a suspect in the crime.  This presents a gray area for the police to work within.  They can ask questions about the crime, but once they come to the belief that you or your child is the one responsible, then they must Mirandize you.  Anything said before this can and will be used in a court of law if it goes that far.

Retain Counsel

The next step is to retain competent counsel.  You need one that specializes in criminal defense, and in criminal defense for the particular jurisdiction in question.  This means that if the case is being adjudicated in the juvenile justice system, then a criminal attorney who specializes in juvenile justice should be retained.  The same is true of a traditional state criminal case or a traditional federal criminal case.  All attorneys plainly are not created equal.

Obtaining an attorney is not as simple as opening the phone book.  And this is unfortunate since this is a very hectic time when making the right decision can make all the difference in the world.  If you are familiar with an attorney for other purposes, business, etc., it may be fruitful to give them a call and ask for a referral to a good defense lawyer.  Most layers are happy to do referrals, as they work both ways.  Other than that, your best bet is to search online for an attorney in your area, then scrutinize their website for their areas of specialization and pedigree.  It goes without saying that the attorney you retain should have gone to a very good law school (think Columbia University School of Law, Harvard School of Law, Georgetown School of Law, University of North Carolina School of Law, Duke Law, etc.).  Since juvenile justice is an area of specialization, the website should spell this out clearly.  If you are having a challenging time finding a qualified attorney, you could always try either calling the clerk of court and asking for a referral or looking for an attorney rating system online.  There are several, although it is hard to say if high ratings are given due to actual talent or merely paying the evaluation fees.

Decline to Comment in Social Situations

Even though you now have retained counsel, and have invoked your right to remain silent (you did, didn’t you?), you’re not yet done.  Neither you nor your child should speak about the criminal case in social situations or post anything about it online.  The only appropriate person to speak to is your attorney, no one else.  It’s a sad statement about integrity and loyalty, but, at least in the adult criminal justice system, informants are everywhere.  Your child’s “friends” are more likely than anyone else to inform, sometimes at their parents’ behest.  Make your child understand that the topic is verboten.  As soon as charges are issued, there is a line of people willing to snitch in order to receive a time cut.  Don’t be a victim of this government-sponsored and supported system of informing.  Simply don’t speak about the case.

This goes double for what you post online.  In recent years, law enforcement has started going on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube in an effort to obtain incriminating evidence.  If you or your child posts it online, then law enforcement can obtain it, too.  Likewise, even cell phone conversations or text messages can be additional nails in your child’s coffin.  Just don’t do it.

Protecting Your Child is an Ongoing Process

When criminal charges are issued against a child, it can feel as if the world is caving in on you.  And you know what?  It is, to a point.  In times of crisis, it’s time to circle the wagons.  At times like this, you are going to want to cry and fight for your kid.  Well, do so.  Let the tears fall – because it is a very difficult, scary, and saddening experience to be involved in – but also fight like hell.  The way to get your kid out of trouble is to continue fighting.  Fight by finding the right attorney.  Fight by invoking your right to remain silent.  Fight by refusing to speak about the case.  And fight by sitting in the front row of every court session, sitting proudly up, and supporting your child.  It’s not fun.  It is simply what is.  So, make the most of it, put on a strong face, and drive forward.  The ordeal will be over sooner or later, sooner if you follow the advice presented in this guide.