Most of us have seen a police interrogation, if only on TV. We see detective characters run the gamut from hard, relentless questioning to taking on the appearance of only having the suspect’s best interests at heart. But fewer know just what the police are allowed to do in questioning a criminal suspect.
Overcoming Free Will
Many of the guidelines come from the U.S. Constitution and how the Supreme Court has interpreted it. No one may be forced to incriminate himself or herself, of course, but at what point does a confession become “forced”? In general terms, a confession is considered to be coerced and therefore inadmissible if “considering all the circumstances, the free will of the witness was overborne.” The question is analyzed from both points of view: “the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation” as the Utah Supreme Court has put it. These can include things like that duration of interrogation and whether someone accused of a crime has any mental factors or issues that make him more susceptible to suggestions or coercion.
There are some things that would be considered coercive and impermissible as a matter of course, such as physical torture. But what about threats, such as to someone’s children? Most parents would probably take such threats very seriously, and the courts have ruled accordingly. In the seminal case of Lynumn v. Illinois, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a confession was coerced after a single mother was told that she would never see her children again unless she confessed, and that the children’s government assistance may be taken away. It must be noted that the Court still evaluated the characteristics of the accused (her inexperience in the criminal system and lack of an attorney) and the nature of the interrogation (noting that multiple officers surrounded her).
In Utah, the state supreme court has declined to say that a threat against children makes a confession automatically forced. One recent case provides a good example. A man was charged with murder, and during the first round of interrogation, he was told that he would go to jail for the rest of his life and never see his daughters again. The Utah Supreme Court found this was not coercion, because it was true: the accused would spend a long time in jail if convicted of murder.
Don’t Be Deceived
On the other hand, deception and falsehood are well-established parts of police interrogation. In general, police are allowed to make false statements to an accused in an attempt to elicit an confession, although a court must look at all circumstances in deciding whether a confession is voluntary. The case generally cited in support of the idea that police may lie is Frazier v. Cupp, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969. While not a major part of the discussion, the Court did find that the police telling the accused that another individual had confessed to committing the crime with the accused was not sufficient to be considered coercion under the circumstances of that case.
Regardless of the tactics used or the facts of the case, the criminal process can be a hazardous thing to navigate alone. If there is any question of being formally accused of a crime or even facing interrogation, competent legal advice should be sought immediately.