When Authorities Knock, Know Your Legal Rights

What should you do if the authorities show up at the office and start asking questions? Unfortunately, honest businesses are often faced with this scenario sooner or later, and it is a situation where mistakes can be costly.

The first thing to do is to establish the authority behind the inquiry and to identify what is being investigated. This can be done by checking identification badges and by asking what is being investigated. If there is any chance that the investigation could reveal information harmful to the firm or to its employees, questions should not be answered without first consulting an attorney.

At this point it becomes imperative to know your rights. The authorities have the right to enter an office without a warrant and to ask questions and to ask for written explanations. Those being questioned have the right to refuse to answer -- and this is what they should do until counsel has been consulted.

If the matter is of a criminal nature that could result in imprisonment, the authorities have the right to detain a suspect. Otherwise, they must either wait until people agree to be questioned or until they can open a criminal investigation and formally call people in for questioning.

Keep in mind that any statement given can be used against the person who gave it, or against the firm itself; so statements should not be made without the advice of counsel.

If questioning is put off, it is imperative to quickly contact counsel and to meet with the authorities. If the authorities are given the runaround, they can open an investigation and then they will have the right to demand that witnesses and suspects come in for questioning.

If the authorities decide to detain someone, the situation is so serious that absolutely no statements should be made without an attorney. The suspect should demand that a protocol of detention -- which must contain the date and time of detention -- be filled immediately. These details should be carefully verified because detention begins at this time and can only be prolonged up to 10 days without the authorities bringing criminal charges.

As of the moment of detention, the detainee has the right to have counsel with him whenever he is questioned and this right should never be waived.

Keeping things in perspective, most times when the authorities come calling the issue under investigation can easily be solved without causing harm to the company or to its employees. Knowing one's rights, however, and insisting upon them will go a long way to seeing that small problems do not balloon into large ones.

Jamison Firestone is an attorney and managing partner of Firestone Duncan, which maintains offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg.