Truth or Consequences
Police lie. It's part of their job. They lie to suspects and others in hopes of obtaining evidence. These investigative lies cover a wide web of deception - a web that can get tangled. Some investigative lies are legal, some are not, and some generate significant disagreement amongst courts, prosecutors, the public and officers themselves.
There are serious consequences here. Officers can:
- Be sanctioned by the courts.
- Be sued.
- Be disciplined in the job.
- Lose the public's confidence.
- Have evidence suppressed, a case dismissed and a criminal freed.
Proper training in this complex arena is critical.
Not All Lies Are Created Equal
Effective interrogation of a suspect nearly always involves a deception - expressed or implied. The deception is that it's in a suspect's best interest to talk to police and confess without an attorney present. It's not. A completely truthful officer would tell suspects this. A completely truthful officer would also find confessions extremely rare. (See below, Deceptive Police Interrogation Practices: How Far Is Too Far)
And confessions "are a good thing." Just ask the Supreme Court:
Admissions of guilt are more than merely 'desirable,' they are essential to society's compelling interest in finding, convicting and punishing those who violate the law. - Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 225 (1973).
But just as important,
The police must obey the law while enforcing the law. - Spano v. New York, 360 U.S. 315, 320 (1959).
So, what's the law when it comes to police lying to suspects to get confessions?
- Courts agree due process requires that confessions be voluntary. That means they can't be coerced.
- Courts agree coercion can be psychological as well as physical.
- Most courts agree they'll decide whether the confession was voluntary or coerced based on a "totality of the circumstances."
Totality of the circumstances can include:
- Police conduct - what officers say and do and how they say and do it, e.g., the length of the interrogation and whether police offer refreshment or breaks.
- The environment - e.g., are police questioning the suspect in a 6' X 8' windowless room where they stand between him and the only exit?
- The suspect's age and mental status.
- Etc. - anything else that bears on the coercive nature, or not, of the interrogation.
One Person's Lie May Be Another's Coercion
Now that we have the basics on the law, we should all be able to agree on what deception is legal and what isn't, right? Let's see. You, dear Reader, work the following scenario and we'll compare results.
Seventeen-year-old Deborah Margolin was brutally murdered. According to her brothers, she was sitting outside her rural home when a stranger drove up and told her a calf was loose at the bottom of the driveway. Deborah went to get the animal - and never returned. Later the same day, her father found her mutilated body in a creek.
When you and other officers arrive, Deborah's brothers describe the stranger and his vehicle. You recall that Miller lives nearby, and he and his car match the descriptions. Miller has previously been convicted of a sex offense and arrested for statutory rape.
That night, you and another officer question Miller at his job. He agrees to accompany you to the station for further questioning. He's taken into an interrogation room and read his rights, which he waives. The interrogation is taped, so its circumstances are not in dispute.
It's clear that you, the interviewing detective, make no threats and engage in no physical coercion. On the contrary, you assume a friendly, understanding manner and speak in a soft tone of voice. You also give Miller certain information, some of which is false.
You initially tell Miller Deborah is still alive. Later you say she has just died. In fact, she was found dead hours earlier. Throughout the interview, you emphasize that whoever committed such a crime has mental problems and is desperately in need of psychological treatment.