Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers

I want a lawyer and will not consider saying anything until one is here.
What to say if you are arrested and interviewed in The United States

In crime dramas, when someone is arrested, he is read his Miranda Rights, "You have the right to remain silent," "You have the right to an attorney," etc. It seems, however, that all good, law-abiding citizens are willing to waive their rights and talk to the police without any qualms at all. But as soon as someone demands a lawyer, or refuses to talk without one, you know instantly that he is a sleazeball. Maybe not the one the police are actually seeking, but he is definitely someone of ill repute.

This has no bearing on Real Life. Any law teacher can tell you that if you're arrested or the police think you committed a crime, you shouldn't talk to them except to say that you won't be answering questions and to ask for a lawyer (note that this doesn't mean that they're obligated to get you a lawyer—just that they can't interrogate you without one). In TV Land, only one or two crimes ever happen at the same time, while in reality, there are a lot more. You may want to help the police catch a crook, but in doing so, you may accidentally implicate yourself in another crime, or the same crime. Ironically, this may be especially true of someone who has committed no crime the police could possibly be interested in, as people conscious of their innocence are often unaware of how easily innocent things said in an interview room can be fitted into a completely different framework. Most suspects never call their lawyers, regardless of whether they're guilty or innocent. Most suspects are also stupid. So, if you are arrested: Say nothing. Write nothing. Do nothing except ask for a lawyer and refuse to answer questions without one. Above all, sign nothing. Also, the police have no power to take you to the station without arresting you; if they ask you nicely to come to the station, you can politely refuse and leave at any time, unless they decide subsequently to arrest you (i.e. they must expressly state that you are under arrest, opening themselves to a false-arrest complaint if they have no legitimate justification for doing so).

This is a subtrope of Artistic License – Law. See also Be as Unhelpful as Possible, Don't Answer That.


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  • Completely defied in Powers when Detective Pilgrim is being questioned by Internal Affairs. As soon as she realizes how serious the investigation is, she asks for a lawyer. The internal affairs investigator tries to imply this trope, roughly saying "You know what they say about people who insist on getting their lawyer..." to which Pilgrim responds "Yeah. They say that those people are smart."

  • Stated as true by Jon Hamm's character in The Town. Semi-lampshaded in that he prefaces it with saying "it isn't a very civil libertarian thing" for him (a cop) to say.

  • In David Simon's nonfiction work Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, upon which the TV series of the same name is based, the trope is deconstructed. The police's main tactic in solving cases boils down to: convince the perp not to call his lawyer, then lie to him about the evidence you don't have, and threaten him with a hardass prosecutor if he doesn't confess. At one point, a notably stupid suspect is convinced that beating a woman into unconsciousness and raping her was okay because he didn't strike the fatal blow, even thinkingnote  that he'll get a ride home. The police derive immense satisfaction from his crestfallen demeanor when the penny drops. Unfortunately, as good as this tactic is for putting down the low-level drug murders that make up the shift's bread-and-butter, it doesn't work a damn on the real players, who know exactly what to do:
    (*sits down)
    Interrogator: Anything to say this time, Dennis?
    Perp: No sir, just want my lawyer.
    Interrogator: Fine, Dennis
  • Invoked and inverted in the second The Dark Tower book. Eddie has been detained on suspicion of drug smuggling (of which he is, in fact, guilty). After a lengthy interrogation, he threatens to get his lawyer involved. One of the interrogators invokes the trope directly. Eddie inverts it by admitting that he doesn't currently have a lawyer, but will be retaining one as soon as he's released.
  • Semi-played straight in Discworld in general, but rather justified given the corrupt pre-Victorian justice system. In this case it's sort of a correlation =/= causation thing; the bad guys who ask for lawyers aren't asking for lawyers because they're bad guys, they're asking for lawyers because they have a tendency to be rich and think of themselves as above the law anyway, and they're usually asking for Mr. Slant, who is well known to be morally dubious at best anyway. Poor criminals have a tendency to not trust lawyers any more than Vimes does (of course, they also tend to be repeat offenders of much more minor crimes, with whom the Watch has an almost friendly relationship, and not the actual bad guys). It also helps that if you're an innocent man, Commander Vimes genuinely is your best hope in the world of going free. Insomuch as an Aesop can be gleaned from Discworld it seems to be that "if you're rich enough to afford a lawyer to begin with, you're that much more likely to be enough of a scumbag to abuse the privilege".
  • A lampshaded aversion in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon: Randy “wondered whether it would be a bad idea, from a narrowly tactical standpoint, to ask for a lawyer so soon” after customs discover the drugs that were planted in his luggage.
  • Done rather badly in Crescendo, when Scott is arrested for breaking into Nora's house (granted, after she stole something from him and refused to return it), and the cop who arrests him says that Scott sounds guilty because he asks for a lawyer. Apparently angels posing as detectives don't fuss too much with mortal laws.
  • In The Westing Game, after Turtle sets off a bomb in an elevator, her mother tries to get her to profess her innocence. Turtle saying "I want a lawyer" is treated as all that needs said to seal any doubts on her guilt. Zigzagged in that while she did set off that particular bomb, she wasn't responsible for the others. Her sister, Angela, set them off, and Turtle took the blame for them. Further subverted in that when Judge Ford talks to Turtle, after the explosion, she figures out pretty quickly that Turtle was covering for Angela, and thus just lets her off with a warning.

    Live Action TV 
  • Most crime dramas deliberately invoke this trope. The detectives will try to convince someone that as long as they talk freely and don't ask for a lawyer, they won't be suspect. The true motive, of course, is to get them to reveal their guilt or other pertinent information that a lawyer would keep them quiet about.
  • Law & Order: There's about a 50/50 chance that someone who declines a lawyer and says "I've got nothing to hide" is implied to be bluffing. Averted and played straight at the same time in one episode. The police have a list of suspects that they want to get blood samples from. Everyone agrees except one guy, who is promptly arrested as no one else matched and immediately asks for his lawyer and it goes to trial. Later, it turns out he was completely innocent and just thought the taking of his blood was an unnecessary intrusion on his privacy. When he asks McCoy for an apology, McCoy refuses, and chastises him for wasting their time! Probably Hollywood Law, as they require probable cause to compel a blood sample or bring someone to trial. He's totally right-if they don't have it, they are intruding.
  • This is done quite often on Criminal Minds, with the agents using the ploy of "if you help me solve the case (by confessing), I'll get you a deal with the DA". "Lawyering up" is seen as the worst thing that can happen to the case, since when it does, the interrogation stops and the suspect can walk free. The most notable example of a suspect walking after "lawyering up" is "Aftermath", when Elle Greenaway botches an undercover operation by going after the UnSub too early in the operation, allowing him to lawyer up and walk out a free man. Greenaway would later find him and shoot him dead, leading to her eventual release from the team.
  • NYPD Blue
    • The detectives (or at least one of them) would regularly play good cop on a perp, saying he should confess and he'll get a lighter sentence, etc. They'd do practically anything to keep someone from calling his lawyer.
    Perp: I know my rights. I want a lawyer.
    Detective: Oh, now, you don't want to do that. If you call a lawyer I can't help you.
    • When the detectives want to interview somebody who is not a direct suspect (at least not yet), and this person refuses to talk to them without a lawyer present, it is viewed as a huge irritation. Persons doing this are usually portrayed in quite a unsympathetic light (which is only partly justified by the story being told from the detectives' point of view).
  • Las Vegas:
    • Played straight in an episode when Danny McCoy, a casino security expert, is falsely being accused of sexual harassment.
    • Played with when Danny catches MIT computer experts hacking into the Montecito, when they ask for a lawyer (knowing he's not a cop, strangely) he resorts to claiming the case is now out of their hands and Homeland Security take over, leading to them admitting they wanted to get into the signage to slag off Cal Tech.
  • Generally averted on The Rockford Files. Jim Rockford, the clear hero, would always immediately request to speak to an attorney after being arrested. Conversely, total sleazeball Angel Martin always tried to talk immediately.
  • Constantly on Bones. Even if a person isn't the killer, once they call a lawyer you can tell they're going to be bad in one way or another.
  • Very prevalent in Castle. If a suspect is the least bit law-savvy, the characters will state among themselves, "He's lawyering up." and treat it as the worst thing in the world that he is even allowed to do this.
    • But also subverted, because people who lawyer up turn out to be innocent about half the time.
    • It's subverted another way in 'Hedgefund Home Boys', when the character who is guilty explicitly refuses a lawyer because he thinks he's completely untouchable. This backfires spectacularly when Castle tricks him into admitting his guilt.
    • One episode played with this, where a well-to-do woman brought in for questioning (and not even as a suspect) comes in with about a dozen lawyers. In this case, though, it wasn't used to make her look guilty, but to make her look like a Rich Bitch who felt she was above such petty concerns as law or justice.
    • In one episode, a dominatrix is thought to be a murderer because she asks for a lawyer in the middle of questioning. When she turns out to be innocent, it's decided that she insisted on a lawyer simply to be unhelpful in a show of dominance...and because she was a former lawyer herself.
      • At another point in the same episode, she pointed out that due to ND As with her clients, she couldn't share their names without a warrant. She wasn't trying to be unhelpful (and said as much), she just knew that if she didn't she could easily be sued by her clients (who, in turn, could be ruined by revelations of visiting her). Very much Reality Ensues.
    • Castle himself lawyered up when he was framed for a murder. Not immediately, because he really could be sure that the police wanted to help him, but when the evidence really started to mount, he didn't hesitate.
  • In the season 5 finale of Dexter, the other characters (all police officers) treat Detective Quinn this way when he requests to speak with an attorney when it's likely that he might be implicated in a crime that he didn't actually commit.
  • Subverted in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when a criminal waives his right to an attorney and chooses to confess. It turns out he already had a pending case, and since his lawyer wasn't present, the confession and everything that follows are inadmissible.
    • But yet another episode (and probably countless more) has Stabler browbeating a man into continuing the interrogation despite the fact that he's asked for a lawyer and also asked to leave (which he's allowed to do if he's not under arrest). When the confession is promptly thrown out because of this, Stabler takes no responsibility, instead blaming Alex for the screw-up.
    • Stabler is practically the poster child for why you should lawyer up and not say anything other than "I want a lawyer" until you get one, and in real life any halfway competent defense attorney could have most cases Stabler is involved in thrown out of court because of precisely this tendency of his. But police actually following real life procedures doesn't make for dramatic TV.
  • Without a Trace had an innocent man confess to a crime after hours of Perp Sweating; Viv suggested he might be innocent because he didn't ask for his lawyer during that whole time.
  • Deliberately used as a red herring in one of the Eagle Eye Mysteries challenge cases where one of the suspects is uncooperative and demands a lawyer. If you accuse her of the crime, her careful explanation of innocence assumes that you did so primarily because of that reason.
  • Subverted in Homicide Life On The Street. The "Documentary" Episode discussed this at length by implying that it is only natural for a man, even an innocent one, who has been arrested, accused of a violent crime, dealing with hostile or indifferent officers, and generally terrified, to ask for an attorney. They also show that the reason many criminals don't ask for Legal Aid is that they fear being charged without saying their piece or offering an explanation.
  • One Shark episode featured a serial killer named Wayne Callison dismissing his lawyer and making his own defense against five murder charges and an attempted murder. Prosecutor Sebastian Stark feared having no lawyer would help Callison look innocent.
  • Cold Squad:
    • Exploited in "Personal Politics": the suspect asks to speak with his lawyer, but the detectives say that there's no need to get a lawyer involved, they just need him to explain his alibi. Wanting to appear helpful, he does so — and then the detectives immediately tear the alibi apart, having previously questioned the other people involved, and merely needing him to either confess or get caught in an obvious lie.
    • In "All in the Family," the fact that a suspect not only got a lawyer, but got an expensive lawyer, provides a clue that he's guilty of more than the police knew about.
  • This is commonly averted on Harry's Law; the suspects in violent crimes who hire Harry are almost always innocent or in a moral grey area.
  • Happens occasionally on The Closer. Brenda's expert interrogation techniques include getting the suspect to waive their rights to counsel, and sometimes she invokes this trope to get them to do so, basically telling them that there's no need for them to call a lawyer, that all it will do is make them look more guilty and as long as they don't have anything to hide it's easier for everybody if they just talk to her without a lawyer present. Usually it works, even though she's pretty much bullshitting them.
  • Frequently done on Walker, Texas Ranger. Even with hard-core criminals who usually know to keep their mouths shut and ask for an attorney. Asking for one immediately makes someone look like an unrepentant sleazeball hiding behind an equally sleazy attorney. To make matters worse, it's usually Alex, a prosecutor who is not allowed to lie to a suspect, who is seen doing something very similar to the NYPD example posted above—telling them that if they ask for a lawyer, all chances of a deal are gone.
  • Cold Case:
    • A man being relentlessly interrogated by Stillman asks for a lawyer, who coldly dismisses the request—"Why? Did you do something wrong?" When the man says "No, but—", Stillman cuts him off and continues badgering him. Another episode has them dragging in a suspect, who immediately asks for a lawyer. When the detectives attempt to begin interrogating him, the man staunchly repeats his request and turns away, making it clear that he will not say a word until his attorney arrives.
    • Another suspect didn't hire a lawyer, but he refused to speak with the police or otherwise cooperate with them, also refusing to take a DNA test. Both of which are well within his rights (unless they have probable cause to compel the test), but Vera took this as definitive proof of his guilt and as such, relentlessly hounded the man until the DA needed to warn him to back off.
  • Sort-of-inverted in the second Elementary episode. After being informed that the suspect won't talk and he has a lawyer, Holmes says that's astute of him, because he's innocent. Apart from this, no one on the show lawyers up, guilty or no.
  • Averted in the 1990's Australian TV cop series Phoenix and its Law Procedural spin-off, Janus. Although the police detectives despise barrister Michael Kidd for successfully defending the cop-killing Hennessy family, the main detective protagonist doesn't hesitate to recommend Kidd to a fellow officer who'd been falsely accused of police brutality.
  • Breaking Bad.
    • Played around with in one episode, where a few FBI agents grab Jesse for a "conversation" and after he realizes they're fishing for evidence he asks for his attorney. They give him a momentary spiel about how there's no need since he's not actually under arrest, how lawyers will just complicate "straightening the matter out", and how it could be taken the wrong way, but he doesn't fall for it.
    • In another episode, Gus is called in to discuss possible involvement in Gale's death. This could be the turning point that causes the police to discover Gus's massive drug empire, but since Gus is a Villain with Good Publicity, he doesn't call an attorney to speak with the detectives since he knows that would raise suspicions. He instead defuses the situation himself with a quiet, believable alibi.
    • In Season 5B, Skyler proves she is well acquainted with how little this trope has to do with reality when Hank tries to invoke it when asking her to give evidence against Walt. Instead of reacting as he'd hoped, she instead sees his attempted manipulation as an instant red flag that he isn't interesting in protecting her, only in getting Walt at any cost.
  • Zigzagged in NCIS, lawyering up happens all the time, and if it does the one doing it is just as likely to be completely innocent as they are guilty of something.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • In his comedy special Never Scared, Chris Rock humorously criticizes Kobe Bryant for not getting a lawyer when he was accused of sexual harassment in 2003.
    Chris: What is on Kobe's mind? Going to Colorado, around all these white people, and not bringing Johnnie Cochran? Well then they say, "Well if you hire Johnnie Cochran, you're going to look guilty." Yeah, but you going home! You want to look innocent in jail? I'd rather look guilty at the mall.

  • Lampshaded in Margin for Error. When Horst refuses to answer any of Moe's questions until he contacts his lawyer, Denny remarks, "Exactly the tone a guilty man takes." Horst gets indignant and insists on his legal rights.

    Video Games 
  • In Mass Effect 2, at least half of Elias Kelham's dialogue when you have him arrested consists of "I want to see my lawyer." The other half consists of "Come on, hit me. I dare you." On the other hand, informing that you are a Spectre, and therefore do not have to give him a lawyer, will cause him to talk immediately. Either way, going into the interrogation you do actually immediately know that Kelham is a crime boss and that he's already ordered an assassination, so calling for the lawyer is not, itself, treated as a flashing sign that he's a bad guy.
  • Inverted in the Ace Attorney series, in which Phoenix, Apollo and Mia all defend the wrongly accused, and never defend guilty defendants apart from on one occasion. On the other hand, quite a few people buy into the belief that defense attorneys are sleezeballs who only keep criminals out of jail.

    Western Animation 
  • Parodied in the Lilo & Stitch: The Series episode "Holio", in a scene where Lilo pretends to have been arrested:
    Lilo: [Behind bars at Kokaua Town's jail] I know my rights! I demand a lawyer!
    Officer Kaihiko: Lilo, you're not under arrest. Come out of there before someone sees you.
    Lilo: Not until I get my One Phone Call.

    Real Life 
  • In the United States, at least, if the police appear to think that you have committed a crime (and especially if they've actually arrested you), you should definitely not say anything to them except for asking to see a lawyer. "Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law," no matter how innocuous you think it may be. Even saying that you're innocentnote  can be twisted against you.note  Note, however, that this isn't true in all countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, the suspect is told that he should not withhold any information that he will later rely on in court.
    • You still have the right to silencenote , and really should say nothing until you have talked to a solicitor, but the UK system allows the prosecution to suggest to the jury that it is suspicious that you didn't explain yourself at the time and only gave an explanation months later when you could have had time to fabricate something. It's certainly not proof you are guilty, but it can weaken your case.
      • Not strictly true: Scotland has a separate legal system to the rest of the United Kingdom (known as Scots law), wherein one of the differences is the presence of an unqualified/absolute right to silence. The qualified (i.e. your silence can be used against you) right to silence only applies in England and Wales (and possibly Northern Ireland). Further details can be found at You Do Not Have to Say Anything.
    • And that's not getting into all the different ways that "acting like someone who is innocent" can translate into "showing no remorse" with the right prosecutor.
  • This lecture by Prof. James Duane of the Regent University School of Law and Officer George Bruch of the Virginia Beach Police Department (Alt-Link) explains why you should always get a lawyer. Examples given include falling into I Never Said It Was Poisonnote  and accidentally confessing to something you didn't know was a crime. The most pointed element in the lecture is the revelation that if you implicate yourself in any way, it may be used against you in court, just as the Miranda warning says. However, anything else you say, even if it's helpful for your case, may not be brought up. Even if you bring the officer who heard what you said that helps your case onto the stand, and even if he tells the truth, the prosecutor can have it thrown out as "hearsay".
    • The difference, here, is that the things you say to the police are classed as 'party statements,' which fall under an exception to the hearsay rule, and which can only be used against the party who said it, not for them. If you want to get a statement by you that helps your case into evidence that you made to the police after being arrested, it can only come in under the 'prior consistent statement' exception, which is much more narrow. The crux of the issue is reliability: statements that help your case post-arrest are tainted by the fact that you have a motive to lie. Statements that undermine your case are effectively admissions that you wouldn't have made if you weren't involved.
    • The former police detective also reveals tons of tricks interrogators use, such as agreeing to turn off their tape recorder to make suspects at ease, and very conspicuously turning it off in front of them. It's meaningless, as interrogation rooms have audio and video recording, but can make suspects give statements as they don't realize this. He points out what everyone must always remember-police are allowed to lie, at least in most circumstances.
    • It should also be noted that in the US asking for a lawyer does not mean the police have to get you a lawyer—it just means that they can't ask you any more questions without one. They could theoretically wait around until you start speaking again—at which point you would need to assert your desire to be silent and to have a lawyer again.