Shut Up, I Explained, Mostly Pointlessly
It's my best piece of advice — and the advice most consistently ignored. If you're dealing with the government, and you are in any doubt, why won't you just shut up?
Yesterday at Ars Technica, Nate Anderson had a great piece about the FBI's capture of a couple of meatheads who were extorting a professional poker player with nude pictures hacked from his email account. Some people may walk away with the lesson, "you're a fool to keep your naked pictures online." Some may walk away with a Coen Brothers type of lesson that some criminals are stupid and doomed to failure. I walk away with the same lesson as always: shut your damnfool mouth and stop trying to convince law enforcement of anything.
Nate's article tells about two defendants — Keith Hudson and Tyler Schrier. The FBI confronted them both in a manner well-calculated to scare the living shit out of them, rousting Hudson at gunpoint at his home and yanking Schrier out of his dorm room in his underwear. Most people have a hard time thinking straight under those circumstances. They forget things, they misread signals, they judge poorly, and they let their desperation to control the situation overcome whatever minimal good sense they have. The only good approach is to shut up. Hudson and Schrier didn't. They both talked, and both started with a series of stupid and easily countered lies, before blundering around towards the truth.
"The FBI does not fly us out here and we don't break into your door to talk to you if we don't have a substantial amount of evidence against you," said one of the FBI agents to Hudson. Actually, the FBI goes off on a wild tear based on lousy evidence all the time. But this much is true: when the FBI shows up to interrogate you, there is an excellent chance they already know the answers to their questions (or think they do) and already have evidence lined up to back their beliefs. When you run your fool mouth, you are probably doing one of three things: (1) incriminating yourself by admitting to parts of their case, (2) telling stupid and easily disproved lies, which make you look guilty, thus making you easier to convict, and (3) telling stupid and easily disproved lies that the government will use to pile additional charges onto you.
Indeed, in this case, when the feds indicted Hudson and Schrier, they added a charge under 18 U.S.C. section 1001 against Schrier for lying to the FBI during his interrogation. They did that even though the FBI agents knew it was a lie at the time and had the evidence they needed to disprove it and it didn't slow or deter the investigation by a hair. Now, that extra charge probably didn't have much impact on Schrier's sentence — it's really chickenshit rubble-bouncing — but it's an additional federal felony that makes his case more complicated, needlessly.
Some people are sociopaths and would try to fast-talk God Almighty. Some people talk compulsively under any pressure. And some people have somehow picked up a foolish notion that if they don't talk, if they don't cooperate, if they don't show the cops that they're good citizens, they'll be hustled off to a cell even if they've done nothing, or that they will lose a chance to divert the cops from the something they have done. Here's the truth: maybe, possibly, there could be a scenario where your long-term interests will be hurt if you refuse to talk to law enforcement. Maybe, possibly, in some extremely unlikely scenario, you could do actual harm to your fortunes by asking to talk to a lawyer before you talk to the cops. But those remote and hypothetical scenarios are vastly outweighed by the strong likelihood that you will make your situation much worse by talking. The "I better talk to the cops right now or things might get worse" approach is like deciding to jump off a bridge because you might get struck by lightening if you keep standing on it.
Shut up. For the love of all that is holy just shut up.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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