If you’ve been accused of sexual assault, child abuse, rape, domestic violence, elder abuse, or any special assault, it’s critical you understand your rights and the implications of the decisions you must make. Consult a lawyer immediately!
Certain questions commonly arise right away. Below are answers we often give our clients. After you’ve read them, you’ll probably want to visit What You Need to Know about Special Assault Cases.
If you’re a lawyer and have been contacted by someone accused of child abuse, sexual assault, or any other special assault, we’ve put some things you may want to consider in The Lawyers’ Corner.
The police want to talk to me about an accusation against me. What should I do?
Normally the best course is to tell them you want to talk to a lawyer before you say ANYTHING about the accusation. Don’t answer questions in person, on the phone, in writing—no communications in any form until you consult with a lawyer.
Virtually anything you say to the police can be used against you in court. Most people, whether innocent or guilty, will say something during police interrogation they will regret later. Even if you don’t actually say anything to regret, it will probably be the police officer’s account of what you said, not yours, that the court will believe. The officer may also tell the court, in effect, that your demeanor during the interrogation suggested you were lying—and you’ll have no way to prove otherwise.
Silence is also usually the best course when questions come from other government agents, such as Child Protective Services workers.
If I have information that shows I’m innocent, I have to tell the police about it, don’t I?
No. Your lawyer can provide information to the police for you. It is difficult for the police or prosecutor to use communications from your lawyer against you.
If I refuse to talk to the police, won’t it appear I’m guilty? So won’t I probably get charged?
Refusing interrogation without a lawyer doesn’t show guilt; it shows good judgment. Most police officers who conduct interrogation would consult with a lawyer before undergoing it themselves.
Most prosecutors make charging decisions according to the strength of their evidence. If you answer questions, you give them evidence. Refusing interrogation cannot strengthen their evidence, even if it strengthens their hunches. For that reason, refusing probably won’t make it more likely you’ll be charged with a crime.
What do I tell my spouse?
Talking about the accusation to anyone but your lawyer is hazardous.
You may need to assure key people, such as your wife, of your innocence, but you should not go beyond that until you discuss the situation in detail with a lawyer. (Anyone who has a confession to make should make it first to his or her lawyer.)
What will happen when I ask to speak to a lawyer before I answer questions for the police?
Most likely, the police will simply end the questioning. They likely won’t put you in touch with a lawyer, because they know most lawyers would advise you not to speak to them. And if they are willing to end the questioning, they probably aren’t required to provide you a lawyer right away.
A few police officers will continue to question a suspect even after he has asked to speak to a lawyer first. They do this because the answers can be admissible in court under some circumstances. If you’re put in this situation, your best course is probably to repeat, as often as necessary, that you decline to answer any questions until you speak to a lawyer.
Although the law forbids it, there are some officers who will hint that if you don’t answer their questions without a lawyer, you will go to jail immediately. They do have the power to put you there, at least overnight. If the police threaten you this way, gather your courage and continue to insist on a lawyer. Protecting your rights in a child abuse, rape, or other special assault investigation is much more important than avoiding a short stay in jail.
What medical evidence needs to be preserved when physical abuse of a child is suspected?
If the child has died, there is no substitute for an autopsy. Specimen collection should include liver and bile.
If the child survives, urine and serum specimens should be gathered, preferably when the child’s condition is at its worst. Some child injuries that appear to result from abuse actually result from undiagnosed inherited metabolic disorders. Geneticists call these “inborn errors of metabolism,” or IEM. Laboratory testing can discover IEM—if urine and serum are preserved for testing. They are rarely preserved, though, without a lawyer’s intervention. Even a wet diaper may yield a sufficient specimen.
Repeated unexplained injuries to a child incline physicians to diagnose child abuse. More than one SIDS death in a family affects them that way, too. Yet these recurrences also suggest a hereditary metabolic disorder.