Poison Pen: Why Signing or Writing Anything Will Land You in Prison

“Man, I know my rights.  I have the right to remain silent, so I didn’t say nothing! I just wrote it all down.”

*insert face palm here*

When someone is arrested, there is an intense urge to do whatever it takes to get out of there.  Many people honestly believe that if they say, write, or sign what the cop is asking for they will simply get to go home.  Instead, your own words will always be the most damning evidence the prosecution has against you. 

Every police department handles written statements a little differently.

In the county where I practice, it’s rare for the arrestee to write his or her own statement.  I’ve only seen two or three statements written in my own clients’ handwriting in over 18 years of practice. (It’s no wonder, in this age of texting and social media, fewer and fewer Americans can effectively express themselves in writing with proper grammar, spelling and syntax. Why would a cop risk having you write a statement that no one but you can make sense of?)

Instead, what I see most often is a statement written by the prosecutor, but signed by my client.  Here, in and around Chicago, once the cops get you talking, then a prosecutor will show up at the police station or hospital to memorialize the statement in writing.

The State’s Attorney will:

  • ask if you know how to read and write the English language.

  • tell you, he or she is an attorney, but not your attorney.

  • ask if you have been treated well while in custody; have you been fed, allowed to use the restroom, and given something to drink. 

  • write down what you say, not verbatim, but in summary. 

  • ask you to initial any errors they made while writing down your story. 

  • have you sign the statement saying it is true.   

    (possibly have you sign a smiling picture of yourself, saying you were not mistreated in any way during questioning.)

The purpose of this tactic is simple -- control. This method keeps you from going off on tangents that don’t matter to the investigation.  It makes sure the statement is legible and makes sense, but is still written mostly in your own voice.

Most importantly, it gives the prosecution one of the best weapons in its arsenal -- a seasoned, credible lawyer who will testify against you in court. 

Whether you put pen to paper yourself or the police or prosecutor does it on your behalf, here are three reasons, you just signed, sealed, delivered your marching papers to the state prison:

  1. You’re stuck with it.  It’s hard to deny what’s in black and white, signed by you.  You can tell the jury or judge you were naïve or scared or uninformed or high or drunk or you didn’t know what you were signing.  You can say whatever you like after the fact, but there’s no getting around that question at trial, “Is this your signature at the bottom of this page, Sir?”

“Well, yeah, but…” is usually a pretty lousy answer. 

2. You think you are helping yourself and you aren’t.  Please stop trying to outwit the officer. You don’t know what he knows. You think you are throwing him off your scent, when in fact your scribbles may just give the officer details linking you to the crime, placing you at the crime scene or connecting you to the other offenders in the case, without realizing it.

3.You just became the prosecution’s STAR witness against you.  Once you write a statement, a confession, an admission to anything, YOU just told on YOU.  It no longer matters what holes the police or the prosecution may have had in their case. You just filled in the gaps by writing it all down. 

Let me be clear.  Do not say anything.  Do not sign anything.  Do not write anything, unless you write in all caps, “I WANT A LAWYER!”