Why is it hazardous to ask questions online about Criminal Law?
Prosecutors, investigators, and other government authorities monitor internet social sites, often looking for signs of criminal activity and rightly so, in light of the results seen from television shows that highlight the easy use of the internet to actually commit crimes against unwitting victims. Statements that are made online by someone can be used against them as an admission by them of an act or intent to commit an act. And if that act is a crime, or sometimes just one of the steps or parts of a completed criminal act, then you could be in big trouble - even if you were just making it up or just asking a question about what the consequences might be if something happened. And if your question or comment is poorly worded, it may sound like you are admitting that you did something wrong or illegal and that can get you in trouble. You have to be careful that what you say is not misunderstood or misinterpreted by someone later who may not know all the facts.
Doesn't the law against "self incrimination" protect you when you are asking questions online to lawyers?
Not really. It is true that in some circumstances a statement you may make to the police can not be used against you, but that has virtually nothing to do with the internet. The "Miranda" legal concept of self incrimination basically means that the police have to warn you that your statements may be used against you and after that then anything you say is something that they can repeat if you later deny that you said it. The same idea is the basis behind the rule that in a criminal trial the prosecutor can not call you to the witness stand and ask you if you did the crime that you are charged with. Actually, they can not even comment on the fact that you did not testify that you did not commit the crime. But those general rules have nothing to do with what you say on the internet. What you say on the internet can almost always be used against you in court. And it never really "goes away."
If I ask a lawyer a question online, doesn't the attorney-client privilege protect me?
Typically, no. Normal email systems are not completely secure because it could end up being accidentally received, or sent to, someone who is not your attorney. And posting something to a social media web site is given no more legal protection than putting it on a billboard on the side of a highway. When you say something to your attorney in the privacy of their office with no one else present, then typically what you are saying is protected by the attorney-client privilege. That means that the attorney is almost never allowed to repeat it and if they do then it can not be used in court against you. But when you post a question to an online forum, even when the forum questions are answered only by attorneys, your question is not just between you and your attorney - it is between you and hundreds if not thousands of attorneys and maybe many other people who are not attorneys at all. Then, there is no privilege and there is no protection. What you say can be used against you by anyone.
If I post my question without using my real name, can someone really find out it was me?
Yes. Every computer has its own unique code that identifies it and it called an "IP address" - a series of numbers that are unique. IP addresses are assigned to each country and then to each internet provider service within that country. There are software programs that can even provide the approximate geographic spot where the computer is located. When you go online, the average person's computer actually leaves an electronic trail, sometimes called "cookies" and may even gather cookies from websites. These are the traces of where you have been on the internet. Police and investigators have been able to trace internet "tracks" for years. The fact that it was happening is exactly where the movies and television shows got it from. So, yes, with some sophisticated digging you can eventually be found out and identified.
Is it safe to ask legal questions online?
Yes, it certainly can be. But you have to be careful how you ask it and keep in mind that anyone could be reading what you say, so you have to say it right. You can do it safely and still get answers to questions quickly and easily and without having to leave the comfort of your own home. That's one of the really great things about online forums like Avvo and Avvo lawyers online. They want to help you understand your legal rights. Legal Guides like this one are intended to help you do that.
How do I ask a Criminal Law question online so I can understand the law and not get in trouble?
It's easy. Ask questions about legal rights and obligations - not about what you did or did not do and not about what you intended to do or not do. If you want to know how theft is defined in criminal law, for instance, then ask it short and simple. Don't say "I did this" or "we did that" or anything else that makes your question specific to you personally or to someone you may know. If you are wondering about a particular situation, then explain what the general situation is and ask your question but don't talk about your role in the problem if you are not willing to make that piblic. If you want to throw in some facts and ask about those facts, then ask it as a "what if" hypothetical question so you can get an answer that fits the question better than you otherwise might get.
Are there some words I should not use in my online question about Criminal Law?
Sure. Never say the words I, me, us, or we in your question or comment. That makes it personal and that makes it about you. And that can make it sound like you are asking for advice on how to get out of a criminal charge that is against you personally instead of asking for advice on how the criminal law system works or what acts are considered crimes. Avvo lawyers want to help people understand the legal system and that includes Criminal Law questions and how the Court system works so that you can protect yourself from mistakes and any misunderstanding or criminal charges that should not be filed against you. The legal system works best when everyone in it does their job right. It works even better, though, when strangers who come into the system understand what the laws are, what a person's legal rights are, and how the legal system works.
Aren't you telling criminals how to avoid the law here?
Not really. This article is not intended for that at all. This article is intended to help ordinary people understand that how they ask a question about criminal law online can make the difference between just wanting to understand something and being falsely accused of something. It's human nature to be curious and to want to know the answer to questions we see come up from stories in the media or in real life and that's fine. Too many times, though, a person may ask a question without thinking about how it sounds to someone else. It could make a person sound like a criminal instead of what they actually may be, just someone trying to get an answer to something they don't understand. We totally agree that someone who commits a crime in our society should be apprehended and tried and, if found guilty, then they should be properly punished for what they did. That's the way our legal system works.
Additional resources provided by the author
Avvo can be a great source for legal information but there is no substitute for face to face private time with an attorney to get the very best advice for your particular problem. If you need help or a better understanding of your legal rights, you should contact your local attorney bar association right away and ask for a referral to a Criminal Law attorney near you.