Most of us are good, law-abiding citizens and our first instinct is to cooperate with the police. Usually, that’s the right thing to do. You should know, however, that this not always true and you have the right to make your own decision about whether you want to speak to the police.
First of all, let’s consider the situation if you are a potential witness. The police might think you have information that would help them in an investigation. Or you might have seen or heard something, or know something, that you think might help in an investigation. In Canada you generally have no obligation to answer police questions or report your information to police unless you want to. You have a right to silence. If you do choose to speak with the police, everything you say must be absolutely honest. You can choose to answer only some, but not all, questions. You can also change your mind: you might answer questions on one day but then not want to answer any follow up questions later on.
There are three things you might bear in mind when you make this decision. You should know that if charges are laid against a person and your evidence is relevant, that person will usually get a copy of what you said. You should also know that this applies to anything you say to a police officer, even if it is not a formal statement that you provide in writing or that is video recorded at a police station. Finally, you should know that if there is a trial in a case, you may be subpoenaed (ordered to come to court) to testify about what you told police, whether or not you want to be a witness at a trial.
Next, let’s consider the situation if you are a potential accused: what if you are the person who is under investigation or might face charges? You also have a right to silence and can choose whether to answer police questions. Some people are worried that if they do not answer questions, they will look guilty. The police may even try to convince you to make a statement by telling you something like that. Do not let that influence your decision about whether you want to speak with them.
There are three things you might bear in mind when you make this decision. First, is this the right time to speak with police? You don’t know what the case is about yet or what other evidence they might have (and they do not have to tell you the truth about that). Sometimes, it is better to wait until you know more about the case before you decide whether to answer questions. You can also simply wait to tell the judge at your trial. Second, if you do explain to the police why you are innocent, and are charged anyway, and what you told them is the same thing you want to tell the judge or jury at your trial, the court and jury usually won’t be allowed to hear that you told the police the same thing. The only evidence that would be allowed at your trial is your own words that hurt your case (incriminating statements). Third, as is the case with potential witnesses, anything you say to a police officer is a “statement” that can be used at your trial.
It’s important to know these rights if you’re approached by police as a witness or accused, since giving statements or answering questions can have far-reaching consequences. If you have any concerns at all, try to get legal advice before agreeing to speak with police.
Confused about the criminal justice process? Check out Vanora’s blog post on what happens when you are facing a criminal charge.