Alec Baldwin learned the hard way: you don’t have to talk to the police. A recent article in the New York Times entitled “Alec Baldwin Didn’t Have to Talk to the Police. Neither Do You.“, describes how Alec Baldwin talked himself into a whole lot of trouble. As you’ll recall, on the set of a movie Baldwin was shooting, Baldwin discharged a prop gun, killing a cinematographer. Sounds like an accident, right? That’s what Baldwin thought.
When the police interviewed him shortly after the incident, they began by reading him a Miranda Warning (informing him he had the right to remain silent, and the right an attorney). Baldwin asked: “Am I being charged with something?” The detective answered, “not at all” and told Baldwin it was just a formality to read him his rights. Baldwin answered their questions, and tried to be helpful and seemingly honest. Baldwin went on to admit that he did not personally check the gun when it was handed to him prior to it being discharged and killing the victim. Trouble.
Months later, prosecutors in New Mexico announced their intent to charge Baldwin with a crime: involuntary manslaughter. So let’s unpack Baldwin’s question to the detective, the detective’s response, and Baldwin’s decision to answer questions. First, Baldwin’s question: “Am I being charged with something” is a perfectly logical one to ask before deciding to speak with a detective. But the problem with that question is that even if the detective says “no” that doesn’t mean that answer can’t change in the future. In fact, it’s really not that detective’s decision whether to “charge” someone with a crime. Moreover, and this is one that bothers many of our clients, a detective does not have to answer honestly. In fact, it is legally permissible for detectives to lie to the subjects they are investigating. That’s right, let’s make that one perfectly clear: it’s illegal for you to lie to the police (that’s obstructing justice, making a false statement) BUT it is perfectly legal for the police to lie to you. So, while Baldwin’s question was an objectively reasonable one, the detective’s answer should not have informed Baldwin’s decision to answer the detective’s questions. In other words, the detective’s answer didn’t matter. Baldwin should not have talked even though he didn’t think he’d committed a crime. Do you think Baldwin knew the definition of involuntary manslaughter? Of course not. So he really didn’t know if he was at risk for criminal prosecution or not.
Another important part of the Miranda Warning, and critical part of your rights as a United States citizen under the Fifth Amendment, is your right to consult with a lawyer before deciding to answer any questions from law enforcement. Let’s think about what advice a criminal defense lawyer would have given Baldwin prior to an interview. Baldwin’s statement that he didn’t personally check the safety of the gun before pointing and discharging it in the direction of another human being is likely the key piece of evidence against him in the involuntary manslaughter charge. The state of New Mexico won’t be alleging that he intended to kill the victim, rather it will be alleging some type of recklessness. If Baldwin had consulted with a lawyer prior to his interview, any criminal defense lawyer who had done their due diligence would have advised him against it.
So what is the hard lesson we can all learn from Alec Baldwin? Even if you don’t think you committed a crime, you should not answer any questions from law enforcement before you consult with a criminal defense attorney. If you or a loved one needs the help of a defense lawyer in the Madison, Wisconsin area, give us a call.