Police interrogation tactics haven't changed much over the decades. Physical abuse, torture, and deprivation tactics have long been held unconstitutional. But police can still use many psychological tactics against suspects from trickery to outright lying to obtain a confession.
Learn what police can and cannot do when it comes to interrogation tactics and how to protect your rights.
Police use numerous investigative techniques to solve crimes, including questioning witnesses and interrogating suspects. When interrogating suspects, police are often focused on getting a confession. If that's their goal, they must do so within the confines of the U.S. Constitution or risk having a confession (and, possibly, a conviction) tossed out.
Only confessions made freely and voluntarily by a suspect are admissible as evidence of guilt. If police tactics induced a confession by coercion, threats, or fear, the confession is involuntary and the judge must exclude it from the case. Coercion, threats, and intimidation tactics used by police violate the suspect's constitutional rights.
Courts evaluate confessions on a case-by-case basis. A judge must look at all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation to determine whether the suspect's will was overcome by physical or psychological tactics.
Factors a court will typically review include:
Police officers use a variety of interrogation tactics to obtain confessions. While every interrogation is unique, here are some key things to know.
Yes, police can lie during an interrogation—as long as the lie doesn't cross the line to a false promise or threat. That line, though, can be blurry. Courts have stated that false promises make a confession involuntary because they risk the defendant's reliance on the promise, whereas trickery and deceit don't have the same risks. And threats make a confession inherently untrustworthy. (More on threats below.)
For instance, police can lie and say an accomplice already confessed to the crime and implicated the suspect. Or an investigator can lie and state that evidence found at the crime scene clearly shows the suspect is guilty. But the officer can't threaten the suspect with a harsher punishment if they fail to cooperate. Similarly, police can offer to tell the prosecutor about the suspect's cooperation if they confess. However, the officer cannot make a false promise that the prosecutor won't press charges if the suspect confesses.
No. The following police tactics are violations of a defendant's constitutional rights:
These tactics make a confession involuntary and the judge must throw it out.
Unlawful threats go beyond threats of violence and include other repercussions. For instance, a court found a confession involuntary when police threatened the suspect with additional charges if he didn't confess. Other examples of involuntary confessions include those induced by threatening to take away a suspect's children or cut off state aid to their family.
Police can generally use the following tactics to gain a confession:
However, if police deploy numerous tactics to induce a confession or the suspect is a minor or has a mental impairment, a court might decide the confession is involuntary and toss it out.
Police interview methods run the gamut from coaxing to outright lying and other psychological techniques.
Lying, trickery, and deceit have long been tools of law enforcement to gain confessions. Police might lie to play upon a suspect's weaknesses or fears. Officers may also ask leading questions to throw off suspects or place words into their mouths that can be later parroted back to the officer.
Another common tactic used by police is to engage a suspect in "informal questioning." Informal questioning can occur any time a person interacts with an officer and isn't in custody. This tactic is advantageous because Miranda rights only come into play if a person is subject to a "custodial interrogation." If the person is free to leave (not "in custody"), the officer doesn't have to read Miranda rights. Many people incorrectly believe that whatever they say can't be used against them unless police read them their Miranda rights.
By far, the most common interrogation method is the Reid Technique. First developed in the 1940s, this "good cop-bad cop" tactic has been used for decades by police. The Reid Technique relies heavily on the presumption of guilt. By using what's referred to as "maximization" (bad cop) and "minimization" (good cop), the interrogator's objective is to convince a suspect that confessing to the crime is in their best interests.
Maximization involves an officer unequivocally stating the suspect's guilt and presenting a theory of the crime (sometimes supported by other evidence, sometimes completely fabricated). Any claims of innocence are ignored by the officer. The officer then moves on to the minimizing portion of the interrogation aimed at convincing the suspect that confessing is the best and only option that makes sense. The officer might claim to understand why the suspect committed the crime and assure them that everyone else will understand too. Or the officer might suggest that a confession means the suspect can go home or could lead to lesser charges.
Courts have generally sanctioned the use of the Reid Technique, as long as the investigators don't cross the line into false promises or threats. But critics of this decades-old technique argue it's not based on scientific evidence and leads to false confessions.
Police use lots of different tactics to obtain confessions. While the objective of a police interview should be the truth, police tactics can result in false confessions. It might be difficult to believe that an innocent person would confess to committing a crime, but it's not uncommon. Innocent people confess for many reasons, including out of fear, to protect someone else, or just to stop the interview and go home.
If you're being questioned by police, here are some things you can do to protect yourself.
State laws can offer more protections than those afforded by the U.S. Constitution. And many states do. For instance, several states require that custodial interrogations be recorded. If the interrogation isn't recorded, any evidence gleaned from the interrogation is deemed or presumed inadmissible. Some jurisdictions place limits on how long an interrogation can be. In the District of Columbia, the limit is three hours immediately following arrest. And several states prohibit police from lying when interrogating minors, including California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Oregon, and Utah.
If you're accused of, charged with, or questioned about a crime, it's best to contact a criminal defense attorney before answering any questions or making any statements. Even innocent suspects can make inadvertent mistakes that can cause a heap of trouble. Talk to a criminal defense attorney to understand your rights and what information, if any, you should share with investigators.