What is legal stuff that most laymen ought to know?

The recent “police interrogations” thread had me thinking:

Most of us commonfolk know that, if we are accused of a crime and cops want to question us, we should keep our mouths shut and demand a lawyer instead - not only is silence a right, but lying will cause more trouble. We know that we don’t have to let cops in our house unless they have a warrant. We know not to physically resist arrest. (all this is USA-specific, of course.)

But that’s about it. What other legal stuff should average/laypeople know, that they often don’t know?

How to file a simple tax return.

This ACLU page is pretty damn good:

You can tell a soldier who wants to quarter in your house to go to hell and kiss your third amendment rights.

You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd.

The cops don’t have to give you a Miranda warning when they arrest you. Miranda is a rule concerning interrogation, and has nothing to do with an arrest. The cops didn’t make a mistake if they didn’t Mirandize you after they cuffed you.

Spontaneous statements are an exception to rules regarding interrogation. Don’t volunteer information. You won’t talk the police out of an arrest.

Jail calls are always recorded. The prosecutors and police listen to them. Never discuss you case while on such a call. Neve discuss any crime on such a call.

The inside of police cars are usually equipped with microphones and are also recording. Don’t talk to yourself while inside one.

If a cop stops to talk to you, and you aren’t told you are under arrest, you are either detained or it’s considered a voluntary interaction. The difference is whether you are free to end it and leave. Not sure? Ask if you can go. If the cops says no, then he or she must have “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a crime either has occurred or is being planned in order to keep you.

If you are pulled over for suspicion of DUI, the exercises the cops ask you to do on the side of the road are voluntary, but you won’t be told that. Don’t do them.

If you refuse those roadside tests and the cop arrests you anyway, then they were going to arrest you regardless of how you did on the tests. They were just intended to gather additional evidence.

Now, a request for a breath test following a DUI arrest is another story. For those, the typical state law says that you’ve agreed to it when you got your license. So a refusal is an automatic suspension. I wouldn’t refuse the breath test.

Don’t go into a business partnership without a written contract. The likelihood that you and the other person will always agree on everything (even if it’s your friend, brother, father-in-law) is next to none. Business partnership break ups can be worse than divorces. This also applies to buying a house with someone you are not married to. Think a breakup is bad? Try having a breakup where your ex boyfriend refuses to sell the house that has your life savings tied up in it.

Never pay the debt of a deceased relative from your money (I don’t mean the estate). Creditors will often try to guilt family members into paying off mom’s credit card. They don’t have a legal leg to stand on.

It’s extremely easy to file a lawsuit. Write whatever you want and pay the fee. That’s all it takes to sue a person/company.

*It’ll get sorted later, but nothing stops you from filing it.

A jail call to an attorney is subject to lawyer-client privilege, though, right?

True, generally.
Washington requires it by Court Rule though.


(1) When a person is taken into custody that person shall immediately be advised of the right to a lawyer. Such advice shall be made in words easily understood, and it shall be stated expressly that a person who is unable to pay a lawyer is entitled to have one provided without charge.

As I recall, there is no recourse for violating the rule.

Yes, and in fact those communications are not recorded. But I, as the attorney, have to arrive and announce to the guards up front that I am there for a “professional visit”, present my bar card and ID, then wait while they verify me in the system. Only then am I allowed to go to an attorney visitation area (which lately is still by phone, making it very frustrating to get a signature on a contract).

Even then, my feeling is that I’d prefer to wait until the defendant is out of custody before discussing the case, when they’ve had a fresh shower, a good meal, and are in a better frame of mind. So my discussions are limited to the status of the defendant’s bond. Of course, I’m a private attorney, so I’m expecting that my client can afford to post bond once I can get it set.

If they are not bond eligible, I’m still going to want to talk to them face to face rather than over a phone for any substantive discussion - there are little rooms for that (where, as the attorney, you sit on the side with the red panic button).

Speaking of:

  • “bail” and “bond” are the same thing. It’s posting some money to get out of jail pending a trial or disposition of your case.

  • sometimes, additional conditions are included with bond. They may require you to wear a GPS monitor, or a CAM (continuous alcohol monitor), and you’ll have to avoid any contact with any named victim (which makes it very hard when that person is a spouse - yep, you can’t go home)

  • If you violate bond, it can get revoked and you can sit in jail while you await the end of your case. Any time you sit in jail gets counted towards your ultimate sentence as “pre confinement credit”

ETA: I compose this long thing, then realize that i thought of the times that I went to the jail and spoke to the client over their in house phone system. Now I’m thinking that your question applied to calls from the jail to a lawyer in his office. Yes, I’d agree that attorney client privilege applies, but my instinct is to be wary anyway. I’d probably say something short like “I’ll come see you” just to ensure that I get connected through the “professional visit” procedure mentioned above.

Lucky! We never got panic buttons.

I always saw them in federal detention. Colorado puts them in their jails. Since I’ve been back to Florida, Covid has prevented me from getting closer to the inmates than a phone and a video monitor.

Not that I’m complaining. The inmate smell can linger in your nose for the rest of the day.

A local woman was arrested for simple possession. Her first phone call was to her friend/coconspirator to arrange her bail. She told her exactly where she’d find a stash of drugs and cash.

Her friend was arrested retrieving the cache and they both got sentenced.

And the all important “You cant take a shower in a parakeet cage”.

But the rights spelled out in the Miranda warning still apply, yes? If the cops cuff me but neglect to give me the Miranda warning I still have the right to remain silent and so forth and can exercise those rights beginning the moment in detained?

If you are ever being deposed (I.e. having your deposition taken), this is NOT the time to tell your version of events, correct the misunderstandings of the other side, or explain your defense.

There will be a time for that. It comes later.

Your job is to answer the questions, as accurately, precisely, and narrowly as you can.

The correct answer to “Do you know what time it is” is either yes or no. It’s not answered by giving the time.

Make the lawyer ask you the questions. And answer them literally. Don’t elaborate, or try to fill silence with more words.

Also, in a deposition all words are being written down. Pauses are not. So take your time being deliberate with your answer. Don’t be obnoxious about it (you don’t want the opposing counsel to say “for the record, the witness has taken 5 minutes to answer “how far did you go in school”), but you shouldn’t let the pace of the question dictate the pace of your answer.

If you don’t understand the question, say that you don’t understand. You can ask the questioner to clarify or rephrase.

If a question is compound (it asks you more than one thing, and so you can’t say yes or no to just one, such as “ As you approached the intersection, did you look down, change the radio station, and then look up and for the first time notice the oncoming car?”) don’t answer it. Ask for more specific questions.

Don’t guess. Instead say “I’d be guessing if I tried to answer that.”

Always tell the truth, but sometimes the most honest answer you can give is “I don’t recall”. If you are asked a question that you don’t know an answer to, say “I don’t know.”

If you are estimating, make it clear that you are doing so. It is helpful to preface answers with phrases like “to the best of my recollection…”, or “without having precise information in front of me, I’d estimate…”

Don’t discuss anything you spoke privately to your attorney about. That’s not something the other attorney is allowed to ask about.

You will likely be asked about your life history. It’s standard practice. This includes employment and education. If you are asked why you left a job, and it’s not material to the case (e.g. an employment discrimination case) but just background info, you can just say “I pursued a new job opportunity” so they can then ask “what was that?”

Don’t be offended if they ask about mental health as part of that background. It’s common to be asked “do you have any conditions/take any medications that might impact your memory/prevent you from answering truthfully today?” (I had one guy make a big deal out of the question about medication that wound effect memory - “Well, if I took it, how would I remember?” Just answer the basic questions so we can move on with this).

With all this in mind, be unfailingly polite. Expect the same from everybody else in the room. It will just make things go so much quicker and easier. But realize that even small talk while off the record can be heard. Wait to discuss your thoughts and impressions of everything until you’ve left the building.

Most definitely!*

But in the wise words of comedian Ron White, many intoxicated arrestees “have the right, but not the ability.”

*Actually, as with any right, there are exceptions. Police can ask basic identifying questions (name, date of birth), but not questions designed to incriminate you (I’ve argued that employment questions are possibly inculpatory if the cop is trying to establish that the person was drunk; if they work in a labor job, it may undermine a defense that their poor balance was due to physical problems rather than alcohol or drugs)

And, police can ask questions in an emergency to secure the scene (“is there anybody else hiding in the house?!”). As you might imagine, this is going to be very fact specific, and likely argued over quite vehemently.

And for some, intoxication is not a factor in waiving that right:

He may have been being a smartass, but he makes kind of an interesting point.

When they do the Miranda warning on Law & Order, it sometimes ends with “do you understand these rights?” What would happen if I didn’t answer that? I mean, they just told me I could remain silent.

Another aspect of “legal stuff” everyone should know about, following on the couple of examples above that aren’t about dealing with the criminal justice system:

You need a will. You do not want your survivors being subject to the whims of probate with no instructions. Draft and execute a will.