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To be the target of a criminal investigation and subsequent arrest for criminal charges can be one of the most devastating, anxiety-producing events one can face in life. Whether it results from a mistake or not, to find oneself in the total control and custody of the authorities with no freedom or privileges can be an overwhelming nightmare for those who do not understand the criminal justice system and have no idea what is going to happen once they are placed under arrest and handcuffed. In my next few blog posts I am going to review the law and procedures regarding arrests and the initial stages of a criminal case in Florida, as followed in the Tampa Bay, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Pasco County areas.
It All Starts With an Investigation
The beginning of a criminal case usually involves a report, or observation, of suspected criminal activity. The law enforcement agency that receives information of a suspected crime and initiates an investigation into it will proceed by collecting evidence, if any, and speaking with the complaining victim, eye-witnesses and other people who may have knowledge of what occurred. The investigator for the agency, usually your local police department, or county sheriff’s office, will be trying to determine if a crime occurred, if the person who committed the crime can be identified, and if there is enough evidence and testimony to arise to “probable cause" that the suspect committed a crime. Probable cause is a legal requirement which the authorities must have before any arrest is justified. In plain words, it means that the facts and circumstances must indicated more likely than not that a crime was committed by the person who is being arrested. In order to get enough evidence to reach probable cause, the investigator often wants to interview the suspect.
Probable Cause Often Comes From Suspect Interviews
In some cases the law enforcement investigator will want to interview the accused suspect early in the investigation in order to hear both sides before making a decision about what occurred and who is to blame. Sadly, more often than not in my career in criminal law, I have seen that the opposite is more common. In other words, the investigator will speak to the initial complaining victims and their witnesses and then decide that a crime was committed and that the accused did it. From then on the investigation’s purpose becomes an exercise in bolstering the evidence in order to reach probable cause and make the case more winnable for the prosecutor. One technique that is often used in a criminal investigation is to finish the investigation, gathering all the available facts and evidence, and then try to interview the suspect. In these cases, the goal in interviewing the suspect is not to objectively collect information in order to make a decision, but to attempt to trap the suspect in lies by pretending to know little or nothing about the complained of incident and allowing the suspect to “educate" them. Often I have seen, in my 15 years as a prosecutor in the Pinellas and Pasco County State Attorney’s Office, that the police need to get statements from the suspect in order to have the probable cause necessary to make an arrest.
They Call Miranda a Warning for a Reason
If the investigator wishes to interview you about a crime you are a suspect of, you will get a call or visit from them. Depending upon the circumstances of the interview, the famous “ _ Miranda Warning" may or may not be required. Contrary to popular opinions derived from television and movies, _Miranda is not necessary to any arrest and will not be a reason for you to have your case dismissed. Miranda warnings are only required if the police question you while you are in their custody and a reasonable person would not feel free to leave. If the police are questioning you before you have been arrested, you volunteer and you are free to leave anytime you want to, no Miranda warning is necessary and everything you say can and will be used against you! Anytime that law enforcement asks to speak to you about a criminal investigation that you believe you may be a suspect of, you should decline to speak to them and contact an attorney. Always! Depending upon the circumstances, your attorney may speak to the police on your behalf to relay information you may have., Your attorney may even offer to have you meet with the police and answer questions, but only in rare cases and only after spending much time discussing the matter with you beforehand. Generally, when the police ask to speak with a suspect they have either made up their minds about probable cause and intend to make an arrest anyway; or they don’t have sufficient evidence for probable cause and hope that the suspect will supply probable cause by making some key admission during an interview. Either way, it is highly unlikely that your interview with the police investigators will change the situation in your favor. If the police come to the interview intending to arrest you, you are extremely unlikely to say anything that will change their minds – they will just assume that you are being untruthful to them. And, if the police come to the interview not expecting to arrest you, the only thing that could change their minds would come out of your mouth during your statements to them. Remember, you have the right to remain silent! Although the investigators may try to make you feel as if you are hurting yourself, or appearing “guilty" by not speaking with them, just the opposite is true. As I’ve stated, you can really only change your situation to the worse by making a statement to police. Any information you have that could help your situation would be better communicated to the police by your attorney, whose words cannot be used against you later.
In a future article I’ll discuss what happens to a criminal investigation if the police and prosecutors decide not to proceed with an arrest warrant and charges.