When the Police Want to Talk To You about Your Teenager

Parents are frequently placed in a moral and legal dilemma when they are confronted by Detectives investigating crimes where their children are implicated.  On one hand, we parents like to believe that we are good citizens who are therefore cooperative with the police who are trying to help us by investigating crimes.  Further, we want our children to know that we respect the rule of law and want them to grow up with a similar respect for the rule of law.  On the other hand, we are parents who are genetically programmed to defend our children against all threats at all costs.

The police are generally aware of these competing interests within parents, and are often more than willing to attempt to appeal to the "good citizen" interest at the expense of the "protect my child" interest.  This explains why, when reaching out to parents, the police will often downplay the significance of the situation, or be vague about exactly what is happening, or offer up the possibility that cooperation equals forgiveness and freedom.

I was inspired to write this by a recent experience in a case involving the police following an investigation of a grand larceny charge to the mother of my future client.  Three Detectives approached my future client's mother at around 10:30 at night and advised her that they were investigating a matter that might involve her son.  They showed her a picture of two people, and asked her if one of those two people were her son.  They told her that they were not really interested in her son, and only wanted the name of the other person in the photograph.  So she honestly identified her son as one of the people in the photograph.  She only vaguely knew the other person in the photograph and could only provide the first name.  The police insisted that they wanted to speak to her son, only for the purpose of providing information about the other person.  Her son was not present so nothing further happened that night, but the police left their information.

At this point, the mother of my future client advised the father, who contacted me.  I advised both parents that in these circumstances, the likelihood that the police are only looking for information about the other person in the picture is extremely low.  There is zero guarantee that the police will be true to their words and simply take action against the other person, and in fact every reason to believe exactly the opposite.  if the police believe that both were involved in a crime, then it is the job of the police to arrest both.  The police are in the business of arresting people who they believe committed crimes.  What I suspect was going on here was that the police believed that they had a stronger case, for some reason, against the other guy in the picture than against my future client.  They wanted to arrest both.

Since there is no legal requirement that the police tell people they are investigating the truth, and since the police are legally powerless (despite what they like people to believe) to create an enforceable agreement as to prosecution or lack thereof, it is impossible really to deal with the police sensibly other than to advise them that if they are going to arrest your client, they should go ahead and do it, otherwise this is the end of it.

Faced with this choice, as expected, the police did in fact make the arrest they claimed they "didn't want" to make.  This claim was utterly extraordinary to me, because, as a criminal defense lawyer for 27 years in New York City, I have represented countless young people who have been arrested for all manor of crimes, serious and less serious, and I have therefore seen no evidence of a trend in the NYPD to forgo arrests they believe to be legitimate out of a sense of pity or mercy.  The police are in the business of arresting people who they believe committed crimes.  This is what they do.  Especially in these more modern times, the police seem to be willing to engage in less and less discretion.  It is simply easier for them and safer for them to make an arrest and let the prosecutors and courts worry about how to deal with it.

Interestingly enough, at the first appearance on the case (the arraignment) the Government served "notice of identification" a legal notice required at the arraignment (or within 15 days) that the Government has evidence of a witness who identified the defendant as a result of a police arranged procedure.  The notice that the Government served in this case was in reference to my client's mother who was asked to see if her son were in the picture they had.  

So presumably, the Government was putting us on notice that should the matter proceed to a trial, they were going to call my client's mother to testify against him about the identification procedure in which she identified her son.  I understand the legal issues involved here, and I understand that the Government is doing its job of prosecuting people accused of crimes.  

And yet, there is something that strikes me as wrong in some way that the Government would proceed in this way and formally make a mother a witness against her own teenage son in a context where the police were less than clear about what they were asking this mother to do and its significance.

Experience like this is why parents are generally better off not engaging with the police out of a sense of duty to law enforcement.  That sense of duty to law enforcement comes from the belief that law enforcement will be honest with you and make sure that you as a parent understand exactly what is at stake before asking you to participate in the investigation effort by the Government.  The police are not only not required to make sure parents understand anything at all, but the police are not legally required to be honest with parents about their intentions or about the process.  This does not mean that the police are always dishonest or will always misrepresent their intentions.  What it means is that you simply cannot rely on the police to be honest or honestly represent their intentions.

And as a parent, if you can't rely on the police to be honest with you, then you are usually left only with the option of not participating in any investigation that involves your child.  When participating in a criminal investigation that involves your child can result in the Government serving notice of its intention to call you as a witness against your own child, no parent could be blamed for taking a step back and declining to provide assistance to the Government.  

In this case, after I became involved and made it clear that my client would not be speaking to the police, the police actually had the nerve to contact my client's mother separately and ask her if she would be willing to try to make an identification of the other person in the picture.  This is astonishing because these are the same people who were about to arrest her son.

So as a parent, when the police call to talk about your son or daughter, you will likely have to wrestle with your general desire to be a good citizen and provide information at your disposal to assist with the police investigations and your genetic need to protect your children at all costs against all comers.  The police prey upon parents' conflicts in this area in such a way that it is often parents who unwittingly make decisions that end up making their children's cases much worse.  Parents often march their kids down to police stations for lineups and to "talk to the police" thinking that this "cooperation" will somehow pay off.  It usually does pay off in the sense that it pays off with their kids being arrested. 

And maybe reasonable minds can differ over whether cooperation is good for the soul in a tough love kind of way and that if a kid is guilty of something, a kid should learn to accept responsibility.  But I can tell you that most of the time, parents who initially bring their kids down to "talk to the police" and "cooperate" are completely blown out of water and feel completely blindsided when I tell them about the reality of their kids' situations and the world of hurt their "cooperative" child faces.  In these cases, I am often at first viewed with suspicion because my assessment of it differs so much from the more rosy and easygoing attitude of the police.  And I can also tell you that in many cases involving young people, where group behavior is alleged, criminal liability is often unclear, and it is the poorly phrased offhand comments of a teenager under pressure that seals the deal and makes the Government's case.

The lesson from all of this, then, is that before you engage with the police about your own son or daughter, think twice.  Contact a criminal defense lawyer who can help you impartially understand your situation and give you reliable advice.  Tough love is great when you know up front exactly what that tough love will mean for your child, and when you have absolute control over it.  But what if that tough love included the possibility of you being subpoenaed to testify against your own son or daughter in a criminal trial?  What if that tough love included the possibility of a felony criminal conviction or prison time?

Nothing the police say to you, nothing at all, can be absolutely trusted when they are talking to you about an investigation where your son or daughter might be a target.  This doesn't always mean that they are lying, but it does mean that they might be, and there is no way to know for sure.

You need an experienced criminal defense lawyer to help you in this situation.