If you want to talk to a lawyer instead of the police, does it make you look guilty? It’s an age-old and cliched storyline in books, television, and movies where a criminal suspect gets sat down in a dimly lit room and undergoes interrogation by police officers pressing them about a crime, usually a grisly murder or an ornately planned robbery. The suspect refuses to speak until they get a lawyer, and the police officers in the trope quip back, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, why do you need a lawyer?”
But despite the fictional trope’s penetration into popular culture over the years, many people still wonder about the optics of asking for a lawyer if they find themselves under investigation for suspicion of having committed a crime. But does asking for a lawyer make you look guilty?
Help from a criminal defense attorney
The problem with this idea is that, in an ideal world where society adheres to the rule of law, everyone accused of a crime is supposed to be presumed innocent until they’re proven guilty in court. But by the time a criminal suspect is in police custody following an investigation, the police believe the exact opposite of that notion; that the person they have in custody is guilty based on the evidence they collect. After that, the police forward the evidence and then it’s up to government prosecutors to take that evidence to a judge and jury.
You should never be afraid to ask for a criminal defense attorney when law enforcement is asking you questions. It’s a constitutional right. You want to make it as hard as possible for the prosecutor to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
What You Need to Know if the Police Want to Speak With You
For most regular people without a law degree, the need for a lawyer if they come under criminal investigation should not be in doubt. Criminal suspects have a right to a legal advocate, and lawyers are duty-bound to represent their clients to ensure they’re being treated fairly by the police and the criminal justice system as a whole. But there are no guarantees of fair treatment by police or the courts in plenty of situations, leading to false confessions, wrongful convictions, and miscarriages of justice that can take years to remedy. The justice system, after all, is both human-driven and human-designed and therefore just as prone to human error as anything else.
Indeed, statistics from the Innocence Project in the United States, for example, highlight why the non-profit believes there’s still a “staggering” number of people wrongfully in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Having exonerated nearly 400 people to date, some of whom were sentenced to death, the Innocence Project has found that a large number of wrongful convictions involve the misidentification of suspects from police lineups, photo arrays, mugshots and police sketches. Nearly a third of the organization’s cases have involved false confessions, with even more dealing with the “misapplication” of forensic science.
If You are Arrested…
Moreover, the Innocence Project claims a large number of cases where they’ve won exonerations through DNA evidence also saw police identify the actual perpetrators in the course of their investigations.
With that in mind, the consequences of wrongful convictions are often two-fold; an innocent person goes to jail, sometimes for decades, while the real criminal remains on the streets where they go on to commit other, sometimes brutal crimes. After exonerating victims of wrongful convictions, the real assailants in those cases ended up getting convicted of sexual assaults, dozens of murders, and several other violent crimes.
As it’s often said, being ignorant of the law is not a defence against breaking the law, so having a lawyer who knows the ins and outs of the criminal justice system is paramount to being treated fairly and having a chance to properly defend yourself against false accusations, circumstantial evidence, police negligence, or even prosecutorial misconduct.
Hiring a criminal defence lawyer, in that respect, shouldn’t be seen as evidence of guilt. It’s more analogous to hiring a roofer to fix a leak or a plumber to unclog a toilet; in other words, hiring a trained and knowledgeable professional to fix a specialized and complicated problem.
The legal system gives you the right to a criminal defense lawyer. You want the best chance possible of getting an acquittal. Criminal law is complex, and you need an expert.
Guilt or innocence
Lawyers defend their clients in criminal cases regardless of guilt or innocence. By the time a matter goes to trial, the matter of innocence is no longer at play. Courts, it may surprise many to learn, do not find people guilty or innocent, but rather guilty or not guilty. They are concerned with the presence or absence of guilt, purportedly operating under the presumption that a criminal defendant is innocent until a guilty verdict or guilty plea is entered into court. Lawyers, for their part, are there to argue their client’s case against conviction.
Even if there’s enough evidence to establish someone’s guilt or culpability in a crime, a criminal defence lawyer can argue that the evidence was collected illegally or improperly and successfully have it tossed out of court. While it may seem like a lawyer is there to find some technical loophole to get their clients off a criminal charge, it’s their knowledge and expertise that allows them to advise and guide clients through the hellish experience of a criminal trial.
Should I Talk to the Police? Won’t I Look Guilty if I Don’t?
In the United States and Canada, people have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions posed by police officers in most circumstances. Other than being pulled over in your car and being asked to provide your name or driver’s license and car’s registration, generally, you do not have to answer questions and can request the presence of a lawyer. In the United States, the right to have a lawyer present during interrogations is much more strict, but in Canada, the rules are a little different.
Back in 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified that police are allowed to ask questions despite someone requesting the presence of a lawyer. A criminal suspect is indeed entitled to seek legal advice, but there are some limits to when they’re legally entitled to have a lawyer present. In the case of R. v. Sinclair, a man named Trent Sinclair claimed his Charter rights were breached when police refused to allow him to consult a lawyer during an in-custody interview.
He’d already spoken with his lawyer twice by phone after being arrested and told investigators he had nothing more to say and yet again wanted access to counsel. The police told him, after hours of interrogation, that he didn’t have to talk to them, but that he wasn’t entitled to talk to his lawyer again. Sinclair, under continuing questioning, eventually gave himself up and later brought police to the scene of the murder for a reenactment. In addition, he implicated himself in the crime in statements made to an undercover police plant in his cell.
You and the Police – Know your Rights
Both the trial court and the appellate court found the evidence collected against Sinclair in this fashion was legal and admissible, despite the appearance that he’d been denied access to legal counsel in the course of his lengthy interrogation. While section 10 of the Charter ensures those arrested are told of the reasons for the arrest and allowed to instruct and retain a lawyer “without delay,” Sinclair’s appeal of his murder conviction was still dismissed.
The majority of the Supreme Court of Canada panel found that Sinclair, even though he’d asked to speak with his lawyer again and again during the interview, hadn’t had his section 10 rights breached when police refused and kept questioning him. They told him it was his choice to answer their questions or not.
The court found that police, in their investigative duties, have to question people suspected of or charged with a crime, but they don’t have to “automatically retreat” from their inquiries just because someone says they don’t wish to speak. In this finding, the court’s majority said it would not “strike a proper balance” between the public interest in solving a crime and a “suspect’s interest in being left alone.”
Don’t worry if you anger the police by asking to speak to an attorney, it won’t make you look guilty to a judge.
Being questioned by police for many hours
In the dissent in R. v. Sinclair, though, the minority of the Supreme Court panel found that Sinclair’s Charter rights had indeed been breached by police when, after being questioned for many hours, he’d asked five times to consult with his lawyer again.
Sinclair, facing charges of second-degree murder, had been “clearly concerned” about the interrogation going on as he was presented with more evidence implicating him in the crime. The dissent states that it couldn’t “reasonably be said that 360 seconds of legal advice” from his two phone calls with counsel before police questioned him was enough to “exhaust” his charter rights.
The problem with the majority’s finding, the dissenting justice contended, was that a person who is presumed innocent could be interrogated for several hours, and have their right to silence brushed aside, in what amounted to an “endurance contest” with investigators who held “all the important legal cards.”
It was in Sinclair and two other cases where the Supreme Court of Canada rebuffed the idea that American-style Miranda rights be extended to criminal suspects in Canada. They posited that importing such rules “piecemeal” into Canada would threaten the balance between the law-making functions of legislatures and law shaping features of Canadian courts.
You have a constitutional right – don’t give it up
Are you still wondering if asking for legal representation “will make me look guilty?” Forget about the anxiety. You should also ask to speak to public defenders when you are taken to the police station.
Given the recent uptick in public consciousness about police misconduct and the limitations of eyewitness testimony, as evidenced by the success of the Innocence Project in the United States, the question of whether it makes someone look guilty when they lawyer up may still seem hard to answer. Sure, hiring a lawyer in response to a legal issue, be it civil or criminal, is indicative that someone wants to be properly represented in such a matter.
Does asking for a lawyer make you look guilty conclusion
But the appearance of guilt from the innocuous and logical action of hiring professional legal help is a lot different than a court’s finding of guilt. It’s the difference between freedom and incarceration. It’s the difference between optics and facts.
When it comes to going to court, optics shouldn’t really matter of course. It’s the facts and the evidence that determine guilt, not appearances, and that’s the most important fact to remember if you find yourself accused of a crime, guilty or not.
In short, don’t worry if asking for a lawyer will make you look guilty. It’s the right thing to do. And if you are charged with a crime, a lawyer can help you get a fair trial, and get your side of the story out. Many criminal law lawyers offer a free consultation. It’s the lawyer’s job to help you.