"Do I really need a lawyer? The nice government investigators just want to ask a couple of questions."

So, the quick answer is "yes."  But why?  If you haven't done anything wrong, then you're fine.  If you have, there's nothing a lawyer can do to save you.  So why fork over a chunk of your hard-earned savings to hire an attorney?  Also, won't it make people think you're guilty?  These are questions I get all the time.

My youth can be most charitably characterized as misspent.  If I could go back and do it all over again, I would spend my summers as a whitewater rafting guide.  The dangers of whitewater rapids are (relatively) obvious, and inspire genuine and understandable fear.  So, I'm betting that I probably wouldn't have run into a lot of people asking "Do I really need a paddle?" or "I don't really think that I need a life jacket, right?"  Honestly, I'd think long and hard before getting in a raft with anyone who asked that kind of question.

The dangers of failing to properly respond to a government investigation are no less real.  Granted, the likelihood of drowning-in-onrushing-water-while-being-crushed-against-rocks is lower, but you could easily lose all of your assets and spend months, if not years, in prison (to say nothing of the toll on your family, your health, and your sanity).  Having said that, in my experience, these dangers rarely seem to produce the same visceral fight or flight response.

But here's the thing…I bet the average person intuitively knows a heck of a lot more about how to successfully navigate a set of rapids than they do about how to successfully navigate a government investigation. 

If that's true, how can we explain the fact that no one is asking whether they should have a paddle or life jacket on a whitewater rafting tour, while people routinely question whether they need counsel in the face of a team of government investigators?  There are doubtless several excellent answers to this question, but a few jump to the top of my mind:

  • I'm not a criminal, so I don't need a criminal lawyer – It's an understandable view.  No one likes to think of themselves as a criminal.  But in a day and time where the federal government has over 4,500 criminal laws on the books (to say nothing of the several states), the reality is you probably are a criminal (spoiler alert: I'm almost certainly one too).  Moreover, you probably have no idea of the several crimes you may have committed because many of them are not obvious.  Don't believe me?  I encourage you to peruse the offerings of the good folks @CrimeADay on Twitter.  The point is, you likely don't know if you've committed a crime or not.  But the fact that investigators are asking to speak with you is a pretty good sign that they think you have.  This should alarm you. 
  • If I get a lawyer, they'll think I'm guilty – Another spoiler alert—the investigators already think you're guilty, that's why they're here.  They are busy people.  They don't just open the phone book every morning and pick out a random set of 20 people to go visit.  The investigators standing in front of you are there for a reason.  That reason is almost certainly not good news for you. 
  • They just want to ask a few questions, and they seem so polite – Investigators receive extensive training on how to get you to talk with them.  If they sense that you respond to fear or authority, then they may try to make you feel like you have no choice but to speak with them.  More often, though, they will try to disarm you by being friendly and leaving you with the impression that the investigation is not that big of a deal.  If you're like most folks, you have zero training in how to respond to questioning by government agents.  Hiring a lawyer is the easiest and most effective way to level the playing field, or tip it in your favor.  You want the field tipped in your favor. 

Like I said, there are surely dozens of other reasons why people routinely respond to government investigations without the aid of counsel.  My point is, doing so is no less dangerous than braving rushing rapids without a paddle or life jacket.  And, sadly, the consequences of both are grave. 

I used to work as a federal prosecutor.  Agents would bring me cases on a weekly basis to review and consider for prosecution.  One of the first things I would look for is a statement from the target.  If the soon-to-be defendant all but confessed to the crime in his or her statement, the case was more attractive to me.  You do not want to be attractive in the eyes of a prosecutor.  But every moment you spend communicating with government agents, every document you provide them, every statement you make, you are becoming a more attractive target to the prosecutor. 

So, don't go it alone.  If you are contacted by government investigators, hire a lawyer before you do anything else.  You don't have to hire me (though that would be nice), but you do need to hire someone.  Competent legal counsel can and will help you navigate the treacherous waters of an investigation and, with any luck, may be able to get you back to shore safely.

© 2019 Ward and Smith, P.A. For further information regarding the issues described above, please contact Wes J. Camden.

This article is not intended to give, and should not be relied upon for, legal advice in any particular circumstance or fact situation. No action should be taken in reliance upon the information contained in this article without obtaining the advice of an attorney.

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