How to avoid police charges?
October 24, 2009 10:53 AM   Subscribe

After being apprehended but before being charged by the police, how do you maximize your chances of being let off with a warning?

I was apprehended recently for theft under $5,000 in Ontario, involving items worth a bit over $200. The police were tied up so I was released from the store. The police called later on and I'll be meeting with them in a few days.

I'm 19 (so an adult now) with no priors and very cooperative. I spoke to duty counsel and then a lawyer afterward, and they said that if charged, I would likely be eligible for diversion. I don't mind completing diversion, since I realize I need to take responsibility for my actions; however, any sort of criminal record would be devastating for a number of reasons. Now, the loss prevention officer told me that for people like me, the police often just give a verbal warning. The loss prevention officer even went so far as to change the wording on my notice of apprehension, crossing out the "will" in "A Criminal Summons will be obtained by the Police on that charge after your release" to "may." On the other hand, I've heard that for cases involving hundreds of dollars, officers always charge. I'm still holding out hope that if I behave in all the right ways, the officer might let me off without charges (and thus no record).

My main concern is of how to talk to the police officer. I want to express remorse for my actions and demonstrate that it won't happen again. But would it be a bad idea to admit guilt in case the police decide to charge? I should add that the loss prevention officers saw me conceal some merchandise and attempt to leave the store with it, so I don't know if I have much of a chance at pleading not guilty. I'm just worried that telling the police officer too much could really hurt my options should he decide to charge me.

What do you think is the best way to go about this? Is the dollar value of the items too high to hope for a warning? If there is a possibility of leniency, then how can I maximize this possibility in my interactions with the officer? YANAL, etc. but any advice would be greatly appreciated. Throwaway e-mail at
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Not sure if this is relevant, but my driver's ed teacher told me that the best way to deal with being pulled over for speeding is to act subservient and not talk too much. I've always successfully adopted this method when dealing with cops, but then again I don't shoplift or egregiously break other laws.

You might want to talk to a lawyer. As long as this is your first offense, you won't go to jail or anything, but seriously, you did steal, so you probably shouldn't expect to get off scot-free no matter how cooperative you are.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:00 AM on October 24, 2009

One more reason to listen only to an attorney is that your locality may have rules/procedures/programs/etc. that only a local attorney would know about.

For example, where I practice law, I can often get merchants to drop charges against first-time offenders by paying money to the merchant. The prosecutor agrees to this. There is no diversion, no guilty plea, and the case is dismissed off the defendant's record without a trace. But this is a local thing. Your locality may have its own programs, written or unwritten agreements and practices. So: see a lawyer.

I want to express remorse for my actions and demonstrate that it won't happen again. But would it be a bad idea to admit guilt in case the police decide to charge? I should add that the loss prevention officers saw me conceal some merchandise and attempt to leave the store with it,

You just got caught stealing --- and from your account, multiple people saw you do it --- so what makes you think you are so slick and persuasive that by merely expressing remorse you can "demonstrate" that it won't happen again? What dramatic change has been effected in you, other than getting caught red-handed, that suddenly means this will never happen again? Every single criminal defendant, stuck in your bind, is terribly sorry it happened, promises it won't happen again, just let me go this time ... and it's really funny to see them back in the system a month, six months, a year later for the same damned thing. The officers know this. The prosecuting attorney knows this. They see it every day. Your articulate expressions of contrition won't mean jack shit to criminal justice professionals who hear heartfelt outpourings of remorse every day.

So stop thinking you're special. Get an attorney.
posted by jayder at 11:21 AM on October 24, 2009 [11 favorites]

First Google hit.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:05 PM on October 24, 2009

The time to express remorse is not to the police - you did not wrong them.

The police are there to collect evidence and help a prosecutor.

Save your expression of remorse for later, either in the court, or by making amends to the shop owner at some point if you can do so without bringing more trouble on yourself.
posted by zippy at 12:23 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Following up on my own comment, the best way IMO to get the best treatment from the officer is to appear with a lawyer, and have the lawyer do the talking.
posted by zippy at 12:25 PM on October 24, 2009

One of the chief areas of expertise that criminal lawyers have is the ability to answer questions like this, which frankly have widely varying answers based on specific geographical locale.

jayder: Your articulate expressions of contrition won't mean jack shit to criminal justice professionals who hear heartfelt outpourings of remorse every day.

jayder's the expert, and he sounds to be absolutely right to me. I guess I'll only add: there's no reason not to have some hope. Lawyers can do some amazing things, from knowing certain people personally to knowing exactly how you should talk to cops from a particular area. If you talk to an attorney, you have a much better chance of hitting upon that special combination of confidence, remorse and savviness that can get you through this in the best way possible.
posted by koeselitz at 12:39 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

the loss prevention officers saw me conceal some merchandise and attempt to leave the store with it

Had you actually left the store? If not, it is unlikely you can be charged with much of anything. Otherwise, suck it up, you stole the goods and you were caught red handed. There is no reason you shouldn't be charged, you sound like you think you are somehow special and don't deserve to be punished by the criminal justice system, I would lose that attitude as quickly as possible. At this point it is up to the police, when they show up just don't give them a reason to charge you beyond what they already have. Respond to their questions respectfully but don't admit to anything. If they ask you specifics, tell them that you don't remember. Also, this isn't going to court, and diversion programs do not result in a criminal record. Worst that will happen is community service, maybe a fine, continuance without a finding contingent on you not getting in trouble again for some period of time.
posted by sophist at 12:50 PM on October 24, 2009

It is always a bad idea to admit guilt to a police officer.
posted by rhizome at 1:25 PM on October 24, 2009

Mod note: This is a follow up from the asker.
First of all, thank you for your answers so far – both in this thread and to my e-mail. I wanted to elaborate on a few points.

When I spoke to the lawyer, it was just for an initial consultation. He basically told me that I don’t have much to worry about, and he didn’t offer to come with me to speak to the police. He said that if I was charged, I could call him back and he would help me with the court case. Should I call him back? Call a different lawyer?

The main reason that I was looking to avoid charges is the issue of having a criminal record. I know what I did was wrong, and I am willing to do what it takes to make this right – community service, apology letters, donations to charity, etc. However, having any sort of criminal record would seriously hurt my career options, since I plan on working in healthcare and have been working towards this goal for years. I would honestly rather spend a few days in jail than have a criminal background that might completely screw up my future. On top of this, I mentor at-risk children and am training to become a suicide crisis line volunteer – and I need a clear criminal background check for these activities. Being able to support others in this way does mean a lot to me.

Is there any way I might be able to serve my punishment without getting a criminal record? I would be willing to meet with the police every week to update them on my behaviour, since I know they need records to keep track of offenses.

jayder: in Canada, it’s the police that press charges rather than the merchant, so regardless of whether the merchant wants to prosecute, it’s ultimately up to the police. The attorney I spoke to didn’t mention anything about such unwritten practices when he told me about my options, but maybe I should speak to a different one.

sophist: yes, I had left the store. I agree that I deserve to be punished, I’m just really concerned about having a record. In Canada diversion programs show up as a withdrawn charge on your record, which is still something.

Thanks again for all your advice.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:54 PM on October 24, 2009

Had you actually left the store? If not, it is unlikely you can be charged with much of anything.

Uh, IANAL, but this is totally not true in many jurisdictions, especially if you were caught concealing merchandise.
posted by ishotjr at 3:52 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Be cooperative but never offer information that is not asked for. Police officers are trained to ask questions to help them investigate. Answer their questions directly. Guilt is something decided by a judge or a court. Guilt is not decided by police or the media.
posted by JJ86 at 5:47 PM on October 24, 2009

My mistake, I was under the impression you had to actually have left the store in order for intent to be made clear. Apparently that is not the case in all jurisdictions.
posted by sophist at 5:49 PM on October 24, 2009

I can't help you at all in terms of practical advice on how you should approach this, having had no experience with anything like this and not working in law enforcement, but I do think the best thing you can do is work with a lawyer. If it's this important to you to keep your criminal record clean, I would hire a lawyer to help you with every interaction you have with any authorities, be it in discussing charges or going to court, so that you have an intermediary who is unemotional and not as viscerally passionate about your record.

I would not mention the personal importance of your record, try to bargain with the police on the terms of the charge, try to suggest ways to keep your criminal record clean, or try to emphasize the importance of not having charges show up. I completely understand where you're coming from, and since keeping your record clean is so important to you and you've been told that you might be able to get around it, it makes sense that you'd try to argue for it, but honestly, I would let an attorney do that for you.

When I read your follow up answer, I thought a lot of things that the police might ask you:

- If your criminal record being clean is so important to you, then why did you risk it?
- If you want to work in an industry where no history of lawbreaking is so important, don't they have the right to know that you took a risk like this?
- Why should we be complicit in preventing future employers from knowing about this when you admittedly broke the law?

If you don't harp on wanting to keep your record clean, I don't think these questions will come up quite so sharply. I think you can safely assume that the police know that you don't want to be charged. They understand what the repercussions are of charging someone with a crime, it's one of the tools the legal system uses to prevent crime in the first place.

I'm not asking you these questions to make you feel bad, I'm simply presenting them because it's what I thought when you brought up how important your record staying clean was, first in the question, and next in the follow up. I think you should say as little as possible, appear as contrite as you can by cooperating fully with any and all information asked of you, and have an attorney who understands what your goal is (whatever it takes as long as you aren't formally charged with something that would appear on your record) as clearly as possible.

In other words, all you can do at this point is hire a good attorney, cooperate as much possible, remember that you are in no way deserving of special treatment, and are in no position to bargain, and hope that they take it easy on you. You are asking for special treatment by trying to keep your record clean. Take it easy and cooperate and you might get it. Ask for it, and you probably won't.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:06 PM on October 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

If the Canadian judicial system is anything like here in the USA, the role of the police is to gather facts and evidence, and enter the suspect into the judicial system. It is not up to the police wheter someone ends up with a criminal record or not. That is up to the Court.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 8:05 PM on October 24, 2009

If the lawyer you mentioned in your follow-up says he does not need to be present for the discussion with the cop and didn't coach you on what or what not to say (you didn't clarify on whether he did this or not) I would consult with another lawyer.

Specifically, I would mention what the first lawyer told you and state your concern over saying the wrong thing to jeopardize your situation and ask if it is standard practice not to involve the lawyer until there is a charge.

Either way make it clear that you need coaching on what information you must/should provide and what you don't need to/shouldn't. I really hope you didn't pay for the first lawyer because I'd be really pissed if I paid someone for a consultation and they said don't bother them until there is a charge. The point of you getting a consultation is to avoid getting the charge in the first place.

While this falls slightly outside the scope of your question, I think there is something else you should be thinking deeply about after this is over. That is, what caused you to do this in the first place when you knew it could seriously impact your future. As another poster mentioned, it is common for criminals to "turn a new leaf" when they are caught but then end up doing it again. If you are really that worried about your future you should start trying to address the fact that you are now statistically more likely to do this again in the future.

Assess the circumstances that put you in a position where you felt you needed or wanted to steal and if necessary, consult a mental health professional. I'm not your lawyer but from what I've read here it sounds like you have a decent shot of getting off the hook with this. If you do, make the most of that opportunity to ensure it wasn't wasted. You alone have the power to prevent this from happening in the future--make sure you understand what that truly means.
posted by Elminster24 at 8:48 PM on October 24, 2009

Slightly related thing you should be aware of ... A couple years ago I was arrested on charges that were eventually withdrawn/dropped. I don't have a criminal record, but I do have an arrest record. That arrest will drop off my Canadian record three years from the date it happened.

The reason I mention this is that for those three years it's important that you not cross into the USA, because if the USA sees your arrest record, they'll put the whole thing into a permanent file on you, making what should have been a three-year hassle life-long. So be careful when you're booking flights that there's no chance that you'll be routed through a USA airport or anything like that.

Good luck!
posted by glider at 10:04 PM on October 24, 2009

Do not talk to cops. They are not there to help you. They are there to investigate potential crimes. If you qualify for a diversion program, you almost certainly qualify for it regardless of whether you "cooperated" with the police. You need to talk to a lawyer, or at least find out whether you qualify for a court-appointed attorney based on your income (I have no idea how Canada deals with court-appointed attorneys but I bet your local court system could give you information.)
posted by Happydaz at 10:34 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

An alternate suggestion: (I'm not suggesting you DO this, just consider it)

The police are more than just evidence gathering Borg drones. They have personalities and discretion, just like everyone else.

While the advice to "don't talk to cops ever" and "always bring a lawyer" is the safest bet, it may not always result in the best possible outcome.

I know quite a few police officers, and almost to a person, they will be far less likely to give someone a break if they show up with a lawyer and refuse to talk. It triggers some kind of instinctive reaction to dig in and push back.

The trouble with this approach is that you don't know the police officer or their state of mind.

If it was me, I would go to the merchant and do whatever it takes to make it right with them. Once that's done, have them contact the police officer and inform them of the resolution. Chances are that ought to be enough. Maybe I'd retain an attorney, but with the understanding that they are just there to advise me. *I* would do the talking, and let them sit quietly in the corner, ready to chime in if they see something about to go wrong. That seems like a better way to show the police that you take this seriously, but are also owning up to your actions yourself. Hiring someone to do your talking for you doesn't seem very contrite... and in this case, that's what you are going for, right?

And, as an aside... dude, WTF? Stealing shit? That's not the kind of good decision making processes one likes to see in their healthcare professionals.
posted by gjc at 7:46 AM on October 25, 2009

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