When You're Already In Trouble With The Law: Stop Talking

The scandal-plagued Olympic swimming team's legal troubles in Brazil may be far from over, especially if Ryan Lochte and James Feigen end up being charged with giving false testimony to the police—but the events over there should serve as a stiff reminder of something that many U.S. criminal attorneys wish they could tell their clients all the time: when you're already in trouble, stop talking and don't dig yourself in any deeper. Lying to try to get out of trouble is one of the worst things you can do, and so is lying to simply create legal drama. This is what you should know.

Making a false statement to police is a crime.

Most false statements aren't spontaneously given—they usually happen after the police have already started an investigation and begin asking questions. Usually, people lie because they panic—they don't know their rights, may not even be sure if they've done anything legally wrong, and just want to get out of trouble. Lying to the police in the course of an investigation, however, is a crime—even if no other has been committed.

For example, take the case of Jennifer Wilbanks, the "runaway bride" who faked her own abduction after she realized that a massive manhunt had been organized to find her when she had simply ditched her wedding and hopped a bus. Had she just admitted that she'd left on her own free will, people might have been angry, but she'd have been within her legal rights to go where she wanted. Instead, she briefly tried to claim that she was abducted and sexually assaulted. She was lucky enough to get probation, but she could have faced 6 years in prison for making a false statement to the police.

Filing a false police report is a crime.

Reporting a crime that you think you saw happen isn't a crime—even if it turns out that you just misunderstood what you were seeing. However, knowingly filing a false police report is a crime—it's an intentional waste of government resources and takes the police away from their other duties. You could be endangering the lives of other people when the police aren't available to help because they're following up some fake lead that you gave them. 

For example, a recent fad involving false police reports as a form of harassment, known as "swatting," has caused trouble for police departments nationwide. Swatting occurs when someone intentionally calls the police and claims that a violent crime is happening at someone else's home, just to harass the victim. Incidents like these are often being prosecuted—one Brooklyn man was recently sentenced to two years in jail for his actions. Many of the people caught for crimes like these compound their problems by initially denying that they had anything to do with the attack—which tacks on the charge of lying to the police on top of the charge for filing a false report. 

Some people end up filing a false police report though because they've gotten themselves into a jam. For example, some people hit a financial crisis and make a poor decision to dump their high-priced vehicle over a hill somewhere or in a lake, in order to get out of the payments. When they report the vehicle missing to the insurance company, the insurance company insists that they file a police report on the theft—feeling trapped, they do so, which adds one crime onto another.

Your future criminal defense attorney would like you to stay silent.

If you're ever confronted with a situation where, like the members of the Olympic swim team, you realize that you probably messed up and think you may be in serious trouble—don't compound it. The best thing that you can do is to remember that you aren't required to talk to the police beyond giving your identifying information. Politely decline to discuss what happened until you've had a chance to confer with your legal counsel.

You can safely tell your attorney everything that happened because he or she is legally and ethically bound to protect your secrets. He or she can also tell you what is safe to say to the police, if anything, based on your situation. It's a lot smarter than saying something that could end up making your situation a bigger legal problem than it was at the start.

For more information and advice on what to do if you've been accused of or involved in a crime, talk with a criminal law attorney, such as those at Novak Lee Atty At Law.