It is commonly understood that the police conduct investigations, gather evidence, arrest people and charge them with crimes. What is less well understood is the role that law enforcement plays when a case goes to court. The reality is that enforcing the law and investigating crimes is only a part of the job of a police officer. The other part involves going to court and potentially testifying, providing evidence to the court about what happened.
Often a police officer is not only the person who decides who should be placed under arrest, but they are also the most important witness for the prosecution. Because the cops fill both of these critical roles in the justice system, it is particularly important to understand your relationship with law enforcement and how the things you say and do can become evidence in court.
Police Testimony and Evidence
In many situations where someone is accused of a crime in North Carolina, most of the State’s evidence comes from the police officer(s) involved in the investigation. It is fairly common for the State to convict a defendant based only on the testimony of a police officer without any other witnesses or evidence.
The police understand that their job is to gather evidence. This evidence can take the form of their personal observations about a crime scene, victim, or suspect. They can also record the statements made by a suspect and then later, when that suspect has become the defendant, testify about what this person said.
Even before a case goes to trial the prosecution will use the statements of the accused to try to pressure them into pleading guilty. It can be very difficult to defend a case when the defendant has already confessed to the crime to the police! In other words, the police can and usually do testify against the defendant in a criminal proceeding.
Evidence and Your Right to Remain Silent
So it is clear that the police can testify in court about things that they have seen and heard. They can use your own statements to the police as evidence against you. Consequently, you need to be very thoughtful about whether it is a good idea to make any statements to law enforcement.
It is often much wiser to say nothing to the police rather than trying to talk them into accepting your version of events. As we discussed in a previous posting, you are not legally required to talk to the police, and it is not a crime to decline to answer their questions. It is a crime to lie to the police or to intentionally delay or mislead them.
So what should you do in the context of a police investigation? The answer is generally to be polite, but to decline to answer their questions. If you feel that you need to speak to the police about a matter where you are a suspect, speak with a lawyer first. If it is a good idea, your attorney can arrange an interview with the investigator or can even speak to the police on your behalf.
When people are suspects in a crime and make statements to the police it is fairly rare for them to talk their way out of being charged. It is quite common for them to talk their way into a conviction, however. Don’t make this easy mistake. Before you say something that will end up becoming part of a police officer’s evidence in court, talk to your lawyer first.