Initial Stages of a Criminal Case – Police Investigation

Stephen Howard — Stone River Law

Real Experience. Real Results.

Initial Stages of a Criminal Case – Police Investigation

When Utah police receive a report of a crime, a criminal investigation usually follows. Police investigations can take years, weeks, days, or even just a few hours, depending on the nature and severity of the crime. Understanding the investigation process is an important part of ensuring that your rights are protected.

Police Investigation

Police investigators may interview witnesses, collect written statements, or interrogate a suspect. Not all potential witnesses may be immediately available or identifiable. Police may have to canvas a neighborhood or interview others involved in order to identify and/or locate those people who may be key witnesses in a case.

The investigation by police may involve collecting physical evidence, obtaining surveillance video recordings from alleged victims or third-party sources, and taking photographs of the alleged crime scene to preserve a record of conditions. When physical evidence is involved, forensic testing or examination of the evidence is often required. Analysis of DNA, fibers, fingerprints, and chemical substances is often part of the police investigation.

5th Amendment – Individual Rights

In any criminal investigation, you have the right to consult with an attorney before answering any questions. You have a right to refuse to answer questions about the crime. You have the right to have your attorney present if you do choose to answer questions.

The Miranda warnings state, “Anything you say can and will be used against you….” If what you say “will be used against you,” remaining silent until you have a chance to talk with an attorney is often the best choice.

The right to remain silent is recognized in the Fifth Amendment’s statement that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” This privilege against self-incrimination applies not only in court, but also during the course of a police investigation. You cannot legally be compelled to give evidence that will help police build a case against you.

Even if you are not the “prime suspect” in the investigation, using caution in deciding whether to answer police questions is wise. Talking to an experienced attorney first is even better.

When asked by police if you are willing to answer questions, specifically invoking your “Fifth Amendment rights” and requesting that you be allowed to contact your attorney are two of the most important statements you can make.

Fourth Amendment – Search and Seizure

The Fourth Amendment protects the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. Rummaging through your property, searching your pockets, detaining you directly, or stopping your vehicle are all searches and/or seizures that are subject to the protections of the Fourth Amendment.

In general, police are required either to obtain a warrant or to meet the requirements of an exception to the warrant rule. Consent is one of the most commonly cited exceptions.

In general, police are required either to first obtain a warrant or an addition to the right to remain silent, a defendant also has the right to refuse to allow the police to search his person or property under his control or ownership. When police believe that evidence of a crime may be found directly on a person, or in a person’s car, home, business, or other property owned by or controlled by that person, police will normally be required to obtain a warrant. There are certain exceptions to the warrant requirement, which may allow the police to conduct a search or seizure without a warrant.

One of the most common exceptions to the warrant requirement involves obtaining consent from the person in control of the property which the police intend to search. The owner or driver of a vehicle, the owner or resident of a home, a person who rents a storage unit, a guest staying in a hotel room – all of these individuals may give consent and allow the police to conduct a search of the premises without requiring the police to obtain a warrant. But each of these individuals also has the right to refuse consent.

The Right to Counsel

Whether a person is a suspect in a criminal case or a potential witness in the case, our Constitution guarantees each person charged with a crime the right to obtain counsel from an attorney. The importance of the assistance of counsel applies beyond just the court trial.

A person also has the right to speak with an attorney before answering questions for police. A person also would be well-advised to seek the assistance of an experienced criminal lawyer in determining whether to consent to a police search or in deciding whether to cooperate with police as an informant. Failure to consult with an experienced attorney during the initial stages of a potential criminal case could result in important rights being waived, or lead to critical strategic errors that could adversely affect the case later on.