What You Do — and Don’t — Have to Say to Invoke Your Right to Legal Counsel in Maryland

It is that moment that is so common to TV police-and-prosecutors shows… and so very frustrating to those fictional law enforcement officers. It happens when the suspect the police are questioning looks the officers in the eyes and says, “I’m not talking without my lawyer here.”

If you are facing police questioning as a potential suspect in a criminal case, one of the most important things you, just like that fictional suspect, can do to help yourself is to bring that questioning to a temporary halt by invoking your right to counsel. Law enforcement officers are trained professionals skilled at manipulating suspects into giving them the answers they want to hear. Your knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney is familiar with all of these techniques and with how to protect you in an interrogation setting.

Your right to counsel is one of the strongest rights provided to you by the Constitution. On TV, suspects often make clear requests to the effect of “I want a lawyer.” In real life, suspects may feel nervous, intimidated, overwhelmed, or scared and often speak less clearly. As a recent case demonstrates, even if you don’t speak with the precision and clarity of an Ivy League law professor (or a trained Hollywood actor,) that lack of plainness does not take away the effectiveness of an invocation of your rights.

In that recent case, M.T. was questioned with regard to an armed robbery of three people in a Laurel motel room. During his police interrogation, M.T. reportedly told the officers, “I’m not even trying to talk, man, without my lawyer. I just want some help. What is going to do me, all this talking?”

This unclear wording seems like M.T. is attempting to say that he did not want to attempt to speak to the police without his lawyer. Nevertheless, the police continued questioning the man without an attorney present. Eventually, M.T. was tried and convicted. Statements M.T. made during that interrogation were some of the key pieces of evidence against him.

Equivocal versus unequivocal requests for legal counsel

The accused man tried to get his interrogation statements thrown out. He argued that the police violated his rights by not stopping the questioning after he asked for his lawyer. The trial judge sided with the prosecution, concluding that M.T.’s request for a lawyer was equivocal. (Maryland law says that, in order to trigger the constitutional right to counsel, a suspect must state his desire for an attorney in a sufficiently clear way such that a reasonable police officer would understand that the suspect is unequivocally asking for a lawyer.)

In other words, saying, “I am not talking until my attorney is present” is an unequivocal request for counsel. Saying to the police, “Maybe I should get a lawyer, huh?” is an equivocal request. An unequivocal request requires the police to stop or else any information obtained thereafter is subject to being excluded at trial. An equivocal request means that the police can legally keep pressing forward with their questions.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled that M.T.’s was an unequivocal request. His wording could generally be translated into “I am not even going to attempt to answer your questions without my lawyer,” according to the court. That made his statement an unequivocal request for counsel.

Previously, in 2011, Maryland’s highest court had sided with a suspect in a case with a similar issue. In that case, the suspect stated to the police, “You mind if I not say no more and just talk to an attorney about this?” The high court concluded that the suspect’s use of “You mind…?” was not proof of equivocation, but a general usage intended to be polite or, more likely, deferential. Despite the “You mind…?” language, the suspect’s request was still an unequivocal one.

Hopefully, you’ll never have to face police questioning for a serious crime. However, if you do, be ready and know what to do. First, be like the actors on TV who, in no uncertain terms, declare, “I’m not saying anything without my attorney present.” Second, reach out to experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been diligently and effectively representing the accused in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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