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After 35 years of practicing law in the trenches of state and federal courts, I have narrowed my advice for all my clients down to one, simple, direct sentence: "Shut Up."
No kidding. Really. Just shut up.
Living in Florida, I have come to love deep-sea fishing. Enter my law office, and on my walls, above my desk, staring and glaring at my clients, is a stuffed, six-foot steel blue Marlin. Below the fish is a plaque that reads: "Behold the beautiful, majestic Marlin. He would not be here if he had not opened his mouth."
When you are a 7-year-old kid growing up, and your mom catches you with your hand in the cookie jar, you inevitably and sheepishly try to come with an excuse. Mom pushes and prods you to confess, and you do. She then hugs and kisses you, and you make up as she tells you everything is going to be all right.
It does not work that way with a cop when he pulls you over. The police are not your parents. The sheepish lie you first tell him becomes a prior inconsistent statement that is going to be used in a court of law against you. The cop does not hug you, kiss you, and make up. He searches you, arrests you, and locks you up. So what you should do is just shut up.
Do not bargain with cops, negotiate with cops, or promise deals you cannot deliver on. The promises they make on the street are not binding in the courts where prosecutors charge you. Deal with the reality that if you are caught with drugs you are now the prisoner of a drug war. In war, you are only required as a prisoner to give your name, rank, and dog tag number. Do not give consent to search your car, your person, or invite cops back to your home. Do a Nancy Reagan: just say no.
As my friend William Panzer says, an Oakland, California based criminal defense attorney, also on the NORML Board of Directors, "If everyone kept their mouth shut, half the people in jail would not be there. The cop’s job is to put you in a cage and anything you say beyond identifying yourself helps them put you there." His advice too: "Shut up."
My advice is that if you are carrying drugs, prepare yourself for jail. Don’t carry lots of cash that will be forfeited to the State. Instead, keep dog bones in your car. This way, when police tell you they are going to keep you sitting in handcuffs by the side of the road- in the hot sun or cold wind- while they retrieve a canine to search your vehicle, you can offer the dog some treats when he arrives. In the meantime, shut the mouth up. This is not the time to bemoan your fate in front of the officer and reflect that you were only ‘doing a favor for a friend.’ The cop will not give you a bone. He will transcribe your confession.
I would be a liar if I told you that ‘shut the mouth up’ works in every single instance. If you are carrying a loose joint in a ‘decrim’ state and you own up to a cop, he may let you go with a reprimand. But let’s face it; if you are carrying felony weight cannabis, a couple of beans, or some crystal, you are headed to jail. The US Constitution does not say your job is to make the police and prosecution’s job easier by telling them how and where you got it. The US Constitution says your right is to remain silent. Use it; don’t lose it. Just Shut Up.
You may think you are already guilty. Far from it; you are not. If the state cannot prove it, it is not a crime. It is their job to prove the case above and beyond a reasonable doubt. It is not your job to tell them all the contraband is yours so their job becomes a snap while they snap handcuffs on you. So just shut the mouth up.
Show police your driver’s license, insurance card, and registration. Show them your McDonald’s discount Big Mac card if you must. But do not be a dope and show them your dope. Abraham Lincoln once wrote that many men are foolish but that some "speak and remove all doubt." Be one of those that leave arresting officers with doubt. You might get rewards for confessing in a church. You do not in a courtroom or on the street to a cop. Just shut up.
The most recent and recurrent law enforcement technique being employed presently is the notorious ‘knock and talk’ on your front doorstep at your home. They are ‘trick or treating’ for an admission. Armed with anonymous and non-verifiable information that you are cultivating marijuana on your premises, cops ‘drop by’ for a chat, seeking your permission for a search.
They like to make it seem they are coming over for coffee, investigating a zoning violation, or looking for a lost cat. They are not. They are looking for you to let a cat out of the bag that you are growing at home. Think of it this way: if they had enough information to believe you were doing something illegal, they would not be there asking for permission. They would have already secured a warrant and smashed in your door.
In these situations, the officers have no valid basis to even be on your property, let alone a warrant to enter. You have no legal obligation to answer their questions. You most certainly do not have to invite them in. They tell you though they ‘know’ pot is there and it will go ‘so much easier on you’ if you cash in your stash. No, it won’t. You will go to jail when you did not have to. You will have foolishly waived a right you never should have given up. So just shut up, and show them the door.
Far too many times, and for too many years, I have watched young men and women get arrested while feeling some sort of moral obligation to simultaneously say to cops: "You got me!" I think it goes back to mom and the cookie jar. But guess what? You are not Dorothy, and we are not in Kansas anymore. So just shut up, because what you do not say cannot be used against you in a court of law. What you do not say may prevent you from being there in the first place.
Norman Elliott Kent is an attorney on Fort Lauderdale,Florida and on the NORML board of directors. Email: Norm Kent Norm@normkent.com.