Friday, January 07, 2005

What'cha gonna do when the cops come for you?

When Carrboro police arrested Andrew Dalzell, they didn't tell him they were hoping to charge him with the murder of Deborah Leigh Key. They didn't tell him if (and I don't know the facts on this) they had only enough evidence to charge him with stealing from the local hobby store he worked for. They didn't tell him squat.

They brought him back to Orange County and on the way, they duped him into confessing to Key's murder by using a fake warrant for first degree murder and a fake letter from District Attorney Carl Fox. This led him to believe that he was not only going to be charged with first degree murder but the the State of North Carolina would be setting aside a sharp, poisonous needle with his name on it. The ruse worked, he confessed and was subsequently charged with the murder.

When I was a teenager and of age to drive a car, my father (an attorney) told me that if I ever got pulled over, I should do exactly as the police told me to. Resisting arrest is illegal, he said. The safest thing to do is to get yourself to the police station then get on the phone to call for help.

I've told my kids, very simply, that if they are ever, in any way, under any suspicion, they are NOT to talk to the police. Except to identify yourself and explain where your wallet is or your license and registration, you will never help yourself with paragraphs that begin with "Officer, I didn't do it ... I can explain ..."

I had a friend some years ago who arrived at home one evening to find the business card of a local police officer. He called him. The police asked my friend to come in so they could talk. They'd had a report about him and they had a few questions.

He should have said "no thanks," hung up the phone and called his lawyer, but he didn't, because he hadn't done anything wrong. Soon, he was talking not only to the police but to the SBI and remained convinced that he could explain himself to the nice police officers.

He was arrested evenually (after giving the police all the help they needed) and charged with a felony that he did not commit. The charges were thrown out of court and a year later he still lost his job on account of the accusation.

No one in this scenario did anything wrong. The police were investigating and they followed procedure, which includes interviewing a suspect and arresting him when he gives evidence that would seem to support the accusation against him. The district attorney gave his best argument in the probable cause hearing. The judge, citing insufficent credibility of the accuser, threw the case out. The district attorney later assisted in expunging the record. Legally, it disappeared.

Regardless, my friend lost his job and moved away to escape this trainwreck experience. His life was irrevocably changed and injured, yet the one person who could have prevented it was him. Had he folded his arms and remained unhelpful and silent, he would likely have simply gone on with his life, unassaulted by a false accusation.

In the Carrboro case, Dalzell was treated in a manner completely consistent with the rights outlined by the American Bar Association's web site. Police generally read a Miranda warning to people who are about to be questioned in custody, says the ABA. But the important point to realize here is that the cops can hold you without charge for up to 48 hours if they have probable cause to believe you have committed a crime.

Putting Dalzell in a car for a couple of hours with only some fake documents and his own guilty heart to keep him company is not only legal and fair. It is a brilliant, savvy piece of police work that should make Carrboro Police Chief Hutchison the North Carolina Cop of the Year.

I applaud the Carrboro cops for solving a murder using their brains and their understanding of human behavior and nature. It beats a high-speed chase anyday.

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