“We’ve got you dead to rights.” The police officer puts the handcuffs on, and loads you in the car. They haul you down to the station, and process you. And if you’re not calm and collected enough to ask for a lawyer, they might start asking you to “cooperate” and “make it easier on yourself”.
And if you actually did what they say, it might seem open-and-shut to you, too. So why call a lawyer? The answer is that even if you did whatever they’re accusing you of, you may not have committed a crime.
Confused yet? This is one of the many reasons the Constitution guarantees people the right to consult with an attorney – because attorneys know about things like “affirmative defenses.”
An affirmative defense is, effectively, a reason that an otherwise-illegal activity may not be a crime. Let’s take an example.
Jimmy sprints off the sidewalk and crashes into Mrs. Jones as she’s walking across the street. He knocks her back – hard – and she falls and breaks her hip. A police officer sees this, and charges Jimmy with battery. But Jimmy’s friend produces a cell phone video that shows a bus was about to run over Mrs. Jones, and only Jimmy’s quick thinking saved Mrs. Jones from almost certain death. If this ends up in court, Jimmy’s lawyer can introduce the video as an affirmative defense. Nobody in this case will be disputing that it was Jimmy that ran into Mrs. Jones. Nobody will be disputing that, as a result of Jimmy running into her, Mrs. Jones fell and broke her hip. But Jimmy’s affirmative defense is that he knew greater harm would come to Mrs. Jones if he didn’t act, and therefore shouldn’t be held liable.
“Entrapment” is another popular, yet misunderstood, affirmative defense. If Sam is standing on a street corner selling drugs, and a police officer asks Sam to sell him some, that’s not entrapment – because Sam was already selling the drugs. But if an undercover police officer pressures Sam – an otherwise law-abiding citizen – to help him out by scoring him some illegal drugs, Sam can raise the affirmative defense that he’s an otherwise law-abiding citizen, and wouldn’t have even considered buying the drugs if it weren’t for the undercover police officer pressuring him to break the law. Likewise, if Sam were compelled to buy the drugs by somebody holding him at gunpoint, that would give Sam an affirmative defense as well.
See the pattern?
The general argument for all affirmative defenses is you agree that you did whatever you’re accused of, but that you did it because of necessity, out of duress, in self-defense, because you were entrapped, or because you weren’t (legally speaking) in your right mind. Those things are offered as a reason why you shouldn’t be held liable, and can either substantially reduce penalties or eliminate penalties entirely depending on the nature of the case.
Of course in order for this strategy to work, you obviously have to have some legally-allowable justification for what you did. This isn’t a license to commit crimes. But it’s absolutely a great reason to call a lawyer! A good criminal defense lawyer knows all of these nitpicky legal details, can investigate all the circumstances and details surrounding your case, and can frequently present you with legal options you didn’t even know you had.
I really hope you never find yourself in the back of a police car. But if you do, remember – at that point, law enforcement’s job isn’t to help you. It’s not to make your life easier. That’s something only you can do, and the best way to do it is to call a lawyer ASAP!