Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Quora, in answer to the question, “What are the common mistakes that first-time criminals make?” Former patrol officer Justin Freeman gave us permission to reprint his answer, which received the most votes.
I’m not a degree holder in either criminology or psychology, but in my experience:
1) Committing a crime with the wrong people.
Maybe you don’t trust them; maybe they don’t trust you. Either way, this often trips people up, because the old saying is almost always true: There’s no honour among thieves. If you make one of your cohorts mad, or if profit sharing from the spoils of the crime goes bad, or if one of your pals gets picked up for questioning, you’ll probably find your name on a detective’s legal pad pretty quickly.
2) Not keeping their mouths shut.
Many, many otherwise suspended, cold or closed cases have been solved because the perpetrator just couldn’t resist talking about it. This usually took the form of getting drunk or high and bragging about the crime. If the person being bragged to is connected to an informant, even to the second degree, police will find out about it more often than not. This also includes taking photographs or video of the crime, because they’ll inevitably fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t have your best interest in mind, or worse, on the Internet.
3) Insufficient (or absent) alibi.
Sometimes a criminal would plan out the mechanics of the actual crime to the letter, but forget to have an account for where they supposedly were at the time of the crime. Detectives are absolute experts at reconstructing timeframes, and if you don’t have your story ironed out to the minute, this will get sniffed out if you’re questioned. Speaking of which …
4) Cracking under the stress of questioning.
Some guys in their late teens and early 20s who were all “street” or “thug life” in their neighbourhood completely melted when their friends weren’t at their back and a fluorescent bulb was shining down on them in a cramped interview room. Add a seasoned detective who’s great at mind games and who starts to “accidentally” drop hints that suggest he knows more than he’s letting on, and the sweat usually poured to the point that the relief of confession was apparently better than the agony of the mental gymnastics.
5) Not knowing the law (or the stuff you’re dealing with).
This might seem like an odd point, but in trying to avoid arrest for one crime, some people would inadvertently commit another in the process. Case in point: I was backup on a traffic stop one night; a colleague had pulled over two 49cc scooters (which were notorious for being stolen, especially if they were out at night). One of the guys claimed he had just bought his for $US40 from a guy who had it in the back of his truck at the convenience store. I looked closer and saw it was a Vespa, worth at least a hundred times that much. When I mentioned this to him, I started to see the colour drain out of his face; he apparently thought it was one of those Chinese knockoffs you can get for a song. Then the primary officer saw that the VIN had been scratched off of the scooter. The guy probably thought this would frustrate our investigation and deny us probable cause; he apparently didn’t know that possession of a vehicle with a defaced VIN is a crime in and of itself. He went to jail that night.
6) Calling attention to yourself.
News flash: If I’m headed to an alarm call and you’re running away from the call location, I’m going to chase you. If you’re walking on the sidewalk, I might stop you and I might not. If I’m headed to a disturbance and you’re speeding away in a vehicle, I’m going to chase you. If you nod at me as you quietly pull into traffic, I might stop you and I might not. If you make a red flag out of yourself, you’re not doing yourself any favours.
It’s worth noting that street crime is usually a slippery slope; there is seldom a point at which someone says, “OK, today is the day I’m going to do my first stealing from a vehicle.” Stuff like this is usually a crime of opportunity. Many thieves don’t bother calling attention to themselves by breaking glass in a crowded parking lot, because they know that on average they’ll find an unlocked car within a couple of minutes just by trying doors — a very high percentage of our stealing from vehicle calls featured no damage to the vehicle whatsoever.
Thus, don’t hope for a criminal’s mistake — don’t make a victim’s mistake yourself.
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