When an average citizen needs a criminal defense lawyer, who do they call?

I just finished reading “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets”, the book upon which the TV series was based. The one clear lesson I took away was that you should never talk to the cops without a lawyer. And it got me wondering what I would do if I was brought in for questioning. It’s easy enough to say I want a lawyer and don’t want to answer any questions. I don’t really know how you would handle the details though. I don’t know any lawyers. I don’t think my parents know any lawyers. Who would I go to?

You should tell the cops that you want an attorney. Demand one. You might get a public defender sent your way temporarily. That person may then be able to recommend an attorney for you.

However, don’t expect the cops to give you any legal advice.


It is my opinion that everyone needs to know at least one lawyer. I think you need at least a lawyer contact that you can trust.

I am lucky in that my dad’s main attorney (he has several) was also the one that represented my parents back in 1968 with my adoption. He’s a sweet man (really) and I know I could turn to him if I needed help at any time, if nothing else he could turn me to the correct attorney if I was implicated in a criminal offense.

For anyone, I suggest them talking to friends or relatives to at least get an attorney. I am not saying that you should expect to be involved in a criminal case but given the nature of the world and the fact that most attorney’s run in some tight circles, if you do find yourself on the short end of a criminal investigation (even if implicated but not guilty) you have someone to call to give you some decent legal advice.


Having read your answer to Smack, I have decided that you make a lot of sense. One should have a lawyer one can trust just as one should have a doctor who knows them. But I am wondering: can you just go to a guy who’s been recommended by a friend/family member and say, “Hey, if I ever get into legal difficulty, will you represent me?” Don’t most want a retainer?
Not comparing the two,(doctors and lawyers) but what if the lawyer you want is out of town and has to “hand you off” to another guy whom you may not know?
Guess what I am asking is, how do you establish some kind of rapport with an attorney you might not ever need?

Just wait until they toss you into a holding cell. Find the nastiest looking character there, and ask him who his lawyer is. Either you’ll learn the name of a good criminal lawyer, or you’ll have a great negligence claim against the police.

Seriously, many folks up on criminal charges know the system, including the local criminal lawyers, quite well. They may be the bottom of society’s barrel, but as far as picking lawyers goes, they are often highly informed consumers.

As far as if you are being interrogated, just ask for an attorney and clam up. You’re in no rush, when you look at the big picture.

As far as having an attorney “that you know”, your best bet is in the yellow pages. A defense/insurance attorney won’t give you the time of day unless they have been hired by your insurance company to defend you. But a plaintiffs’ attorney is much more likely to be willing to do you a small favor (or two) on the principle that a satisfied client is a potential source of business (or referrals) down the line.

Wait until the problem comes up (civil or criminal). If it’s not a major problem, aim for a smaller firm, even a solo, who does a general practice. They will usually be happy for the chance to show you (and your friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.) that they can do a good job, as long as you are not asking them to devote any great amount of time . . .

It’s a lot more complicated than that, really, but I hope this is a start.

The first being to SHUT YOUR MOUTH! When the cops are asking you questions, they are not your friends.

Mrs. Tonk is a lawyer with a busy practice doing criminal defense.

It doesn’t matter much if already know one. But when you’re in trouble you should know how to find one fast. Probably the quickest way to find a lawyer is the Yellow Pages under ‘Attorneys’, and usually the listings are sorted by fields of practice. Go to Criminal Defense. And if it’s 3:30 in the morning and you’re in custody, there’s usually a few that advertise 24 hour availability.

They might not come down and hold your hand through the process, but they can coach you over the phone and tell you what to say and what not to say, and what needs to be done in order to get released (posting bail, etc.) Most any criminal defense attorney can get you through this part competently. Mrs. Tonk does this part for free, but I’m not sure if all attorneys do. And the vast majority of people she does this for become paying clients.

Then you have some time to find the right attorney for the job. Probably the very best way is by referral. Talk to people.

This is true. The best referrals come from people who’ve seen defense attorneys doing their work. This isn’t just “frequent flyers”, but also includes judges, courtroom clerks, courthouse security officers, court reporters, stenographers, and journalists that cover the court scene. They have seen the best and the worst. And so have the District Attorneys. If you know anyone (or if you know someone who knows someone) who works in the court system, they will have very good ideas on who to hire.

Police officers are another good source for referrals. They are in court quite often for criminal trials, and they know who’s good. Several of Mrs. Tonk’s clients were refered by the officer who arrested them!

And don’t overlook people you might know who’ve sat on a jury for a criminal trial. These people get to watch the show from the front row. Jurors can estimate the competency and effectiveness of attorneys rather well. At the very least, they’ll tell you who to avoid.

And finally, don’t discount Public Defenders. Despite the fact that they are often young, overworked, and underpaid, they tend to be very dedicated to their profession and get a lot of experience in a very short amount time. And of course, they too know who the best private attorneys are.

Lastly, let me tell you who you don’t want to hire. You want to avoid the lawyer who wrote your grandmother’s will. You want to avoid the one who helped your rich uncle get out of his mess with taxes. You want to skip the lawyer who makes a living from wrongful death and personal injury cases. You don’t want to hire anyone just because they are a friend of a friend because you already trust them; nor do you want to hire an attorney who does criminal cases “just once in a while”. In short, you want someone who makes a living practicing criminal law.

In my prior post’s title, I meant the previous posters had offered good advice.

It was in no way meant to prop up my own epic post.

Just knowing a lawyer is not enough. Knowing the right lawyer is the important thing. If I were arrested, I wouldn’t want my father (who is a lobbyist in practice) to represent me. If OTOH, I owned my own company and had an interest in getting certain legislation passed or blocked…

That being said, all attroneys at least know of a good criminal defense lawyer. Also, when you are booked into jail and finally get a chance to make a phone call, you should probably call a trusted friend or family member and let them start the search for help. One other source for a good referral is a bail bondsman, someone your friend/family member will almost certainly call if you are arraigned.

Ignoring the conundrum of the headline…
BobT noted you should demand an attorney from the police. He is correct. As you are advised by the warnings required under the ruling issued by the US Supreme Court in the Miranda case, you have a right to have an attorney present when you are questioned, and if you can’t afford one, one can be provided to you by the state at no cost to you.

Now THIS part of the Miranda warning is FAR more important than the one about staying silent, as it turns out. If all you do is tell the police that you refuse to talk, the police can continue to attempt to get you to make a statement (within some relatively large parameters). But the very SECOND you invoke the desire to have an attorney present, they have to lay off of you, and can’t badger you to talk until you have your attorney present.

I’d suggest that anyone wanting to know what they should do when arrested should perhaps ask Bricker, who was a PD and who maintains quite an interest in the area of criminal defense law and practice.

Oh, and for the sake of brevity, citations for the above omitted; available on request. :slight_smile:

They call the local bar assn. & inquire for one that specializes in their type of situation. Whether your local bar assn has a 24/7 number, that’s another thing. You can also look in the phone book at the cop station for a lawyer with a 24 hour number…not that I have, of course.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, DSY!

Couple nit-picky addendums to what you said, first: your request for a lawyer must be unambiguous. “Maybe I should talk to a lawyer first…” does not prevent the cops from continuing to question you. “I want to talk to a lawyer now,” does the job.

Even if you ask for a lawyer, statements you make to the cops before the lawyer gets there may be used against you if you initiate the conversation. Therefore, don’t initiate any conversations.

In this situation, the police are not your friends - even though they may act friendly. There’s a reason for them to say, “Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.” Their entire focus is on getting you to say something that can be used against you. Even if you think you’re being clever, and not saying anything admissible or useful… whatever you say then is what you can be impeached with later, if your story changes – or even if you made an honest mistake.

If you’re arrested, then, or even questioned in a custodial environment – one in which you’ve been given your Miranda rights – you should simply say, “I haven’t done anything wrong, and I want to talk to a lawyer now.” Period. Don’t elaborate, don’t explain, don’t try to convince them what a good person you are. “I haven’t done anything wrong, and I want to talk to a lawyer now.” Then shut up.

Do not talk to anyone else, especially in a holding cell. Just shut up. I could have had virtually a 100% win rate if every client I represented would have shut his mouth when talking to the police. By the time I got involved, I would be left futilely trying to argue against my guy’s confession or statement being admitted - almost always a losing argument. The police have dealt with this situation thousands of times – they know that what they get someone to say before the lawyer arrives is most often the key to winning at trial. They want you to talk.

Just shut up. This is also good advice if you’re questioned without your rights. The trick here is that you’re brought down with no handcuffs, told you’re free to go at any time, but then sat in an interrogation room and questioned. Any admissions you make will be used against you, with the Commonwealth piously claiming it wasn’t a custodial interrogation, and you were free to go at any time. If they tell you you’re free to go, get up and leave, or tell them you won’t talk without a lawyer.

The public defender or appointed lawyer you get in response to a request for a lawyer will be able to advise you on whether or not you’ll qualify for a PD throughout the trial, and can recommend a good private attorney. Anything you tell him, with the exception of disclosing a crime about to happen or one that’s on-going, is privileged, he cannot repeat it and it can’t be used against you.

Free bonus advice:

COP: “You don’t have anything inthis car I should know about, do you?”

YOU: “No, officer.”

COP: “Mind if I take a look?”

YOU: “Uh… I’d rather not, no.”

COP: “If you don’t have anything illegal in there, why can’t I take a look?”

YOU: Uh oh, he’s got me! “Uh… OK, sure, I guess so.”

No good ever comes from consenting to a search. If he has probable cause, he can search anyway. If he doesn’t, he can’t search unless you consent. Officers are trained to wring out that consent from you by making you feel that if you don’t consent, you’re admitting guilt. It doesn’t work that way.

Instead, try: “While I always want to cooperate with the police, my privacy is very important to me, so I am not giving you consent to search.” Repeat it calmly, non-confrontationally. Don’t fall into the trap of discussing reasons. Just refuse consent.

  • Rick

Clarification please?
First of all your advice seems perfectly reasoned and I don’t dispute your authority on the subject.

I don’t understand one thing tho’ :

Why add “I haven’t done anything wrong”? By your explanation, that statement could be used against you in court. “well, the defendant claimed “I haven’t done anything wrong” but here in this case we found…”

I’ll accept your word, just wondered why you’d bother saying more than “I want to talk to a lawyer now” .

Nice piece, BTW about the “can I search?” I had a friend in college was with her roommate who was shoplifting, both got arrested, the cops asked to search their home, the roommate almost agreed, my friend thought what advice I would give her and said “nope”.

The “I haven’t done anything wrong,” bit is not by any means necessary - but I added it in because it might conceivably guard against an evidentiary harpoon.

It’s not specific enough to be used, as you speculate above, as impeachment. If the cops find evidence of wrongdoing, they won’t haul it out to show you lied to the police; they’ll use it to convict you of the underlying crime. By contrast, if you say, “I didn’t rob the 7-11; I was with my grandmother at her rest home last night,” you’re then stuck with that story, and if you change it, they can impeach you by pointing out you lied to the police.

What’s the harpoon issue?

Occasionally, through an excess of zeal, or ignorance, or (gasp!) calculated indifference to the law, a prosecution witness will impermissibly refer to a defendant’s post-arrest silence. This is forbidden, since it draws the jury’s attention to the exercise of a right that the accused has, and invites a inference that only a guilty person would remain silent. Still, it happens… the detective may blurt out something like, “And after we informed Mr. Wring of his rights, he told us he wanted a lawyer and refused to say anything more.”

The usual defense move at that point is to request a mistrial. This is more to preserve the record for appeal than out of any hope that it will be granted; the judge will usually rule that a limiting or cautionary instruction to the jury is sufficient to cure the prejudice. Of course, usually that only serves to fix the remark even more firmly in the jury’s minds.

When things like that happened, I often fantasized about how nice it would be to be able to say, “Actually, Detective Bluto, he did say one more thing, didn’t he?” and wrest out the admission that my client denied any wrong-doing before he clammed up. Normally, such a statement would be inadmissible as hearsay; in those circumstances, it wouldn’t be offered for the truth, but to rebut the inference made by the prosecution witness.

How often does this happen? Very seldom. But since I was offering my ideal version of what clients would say and do when arrested and questioned, I included it…

  • Rick

thanks Bricker I knew you had a reason.

Good thinking (really, a cop would do that on the stand knowing that it was inadmissable? only a new cop who didn’t really know that, right???)

anyhow, allow me to offer one other little thing, tho’ ‘tis "Ms Ring’, I get that a lot here. Actually once on the stand I was asked “is it Mrs. or Miss” (I was going through a divorce at the time, they knew it, and I believe they may have wanted to rattle me), I replied “why would you ask” (couldn’t believe they let me do that), he answered “I only want to know how you prefer to be addressed”, I said “I prefer Ms.”, and then he went on with “Mrs…” :rolleyes: Perry Mason, he wasn’t.

Ms. Wring,

You’d be surprised what cops do on the stand.

I have great respect for the law enforcement profession, and the vast majority of its members are scrupulously honest, even when their honesty costs the prosecution a supression issue. In short, they play by the rules.

There are a few, however, that don’t. I have seen cops complacently lie on the stand about obtaining consent to search, about what caused them to initiate traffic stops, and the like. And I’m sure they do it because they think that the end justifies the means, the accused really were guilty, and so a little nudge in the right direction is not really a bad thing.

When I’ve seen veteran cops use an evidentiary harpoon (and it’s very rare) I’ve suspected it’s been because the prosecution needed help, and they thought this was a good way to get the good guys back on the winning side.

I’ve also seen cops lose their temper under cross-examination and blurt out damaging statements that are not admissible.

Finally, as you suggest, I’ve seen rookie cops just make a mistake.

  • Rick