Everyone who has ever watched a police drama on television has heard the famous Miranda warning. In fact, “you have the right to remain silent” is probably one of the most well known phrases in American culture.
It is therefore both inexplicable and amusing how frequently Americans fail to heed the message in those words. Most people have no idea why there is any such thing as a Miranda warning and therefore are unlikely to know what rights they are preserving by listening to those famous words.
An accident scene can be a potential legal minefield for anyone involved. Leaving aside the possibility of civil liability, many accidents can produce a variety of criminal penalties ranging from traffic tickets to serious charges.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the best advice is to assert your rights in any encounter with police and decline to answer any questions until you have consulted an attorney. Here’s why.
The Objectives of Police
The job of a police officer is to enforce the law. They are not your friend. They are not at an accident scene to advise you on the best way to proceed. Police respond to the scene of an accident for a vanishingly small number of reasons. Topping the list is to develop evidence of criminal activity and then to produce a suspect they can charge with those crimes.
Everything you say to a police officer can be used as evidence to convict you. This is one of the myriad reasons the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution recognizes your right to remain silent. There is no legal authority in the country that can compel you to testify against yourself. It is always best to exercise that right.
What You Know vs. What They Know
Until you have had a chance to consult with counsel, you have no way of knowing what exactly is being investigated. The police will be no help for two reasons. One, they have the right to lie to you and deceive you. Second, most police officers are prohibited from discussing an ongoing investigation, even if they are talking to the subject of that investigation.
If you answer questions, you have no idea how those answers might be used against you later. You don’t know what they are investigating yet.
You Cannot Help Yourself
If the police develop evidence of a crime at the scene of an accident, and they want to talk with you in order to “clear things up,” what harm could there be in setting the record straight? As it turns out, a great deal of harm could come to you as a result.
Even if you give the police conclusive evidence of your innocence, if the case goes to trial, it cannot ever help you. Why? Simple. If you or your attorney ask the police officer to whom you gave evidence of your innocence to testify about it in court, the prosecutor will say “objection: hearsay” and the judge will sustain the objection. Police officers are bound by the rules of evidence and may not testify in a court of law as to what some third party, even the defendant, told them at some other time and place.
However, a police officer may always offer testimony in a court of law regarding what they consider evidence of a crime, and that includes anything you, a potential suspect, might say during their investigation. In case you are wondering, that’s exactly right. Even if they want to, a police officer cannot ever help you at trial, so its best to just remain silent.
There’s No Rush
Any accident scene is likely to produce a prolonged investigation, especially if a police report is taken. By themselves, the insurance companies are likely to insist several volumes of evidence be produced so they can minimize their financial exposure. Such a process will take time, so there is really no reason for you to be in a big hurry to start recounting every last detail to the police.
Your right to counsel is not limited to situations where you have been arrested or are being interrogated. Because many kinds of accidents can result in criminal liability, it is best you be apprised of your legal options before you decide to make a statement to police. Having competent legal counsel could very well help you avoid unnecessary entanglement in a criminal matter.
Even if you think you’re just a witness and even if you think you haven’t done anything wrong, there are no circumstances under which talking to the police at an accident scene is likely to serve your best interests. Do only what you are required to by law, remain silent and consult with an attorney as soon as possible. They are your rights. Use them.