Tactics Police Use to Get a Confession

Just how far can police go when interrogating a suspect?

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated July 07, 2023

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.

Understanding Police Interrogations and Confessions

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.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Confessions

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.

What Makes a Confession Involuntary and Inadmissible?

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:

  • tactics used by the police
  • the length, continuity, and nature of the interrogation
  • conditions of the interrogation (handcuffs, small room, bathroom breaks)
  • whether Miranda rights were read
  • whether investigators made false promises or threats, and
  • the suspect's age, education, intelligence, and physical and mental conditions.

Police Interrogation Tactics

Police officers use a variety of interrogation tactics to obtain confessions. While every interrogation is unique, here are some key things to know.

Can Police Lie in an Interrogation?

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.

Can Police Threaten or Harm a Suspect in an Interrogation?

No. The following police tactics are violations of a defendant's constitutional rights:

  • physical abuse or violence
  • threats of harm or violence or other repercussions, and
  • deprivation of essential needs (water, bathroom breaks, sleep, long periods of isolation).

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.

What Other Confession Tactics Can Police Use?

Police can generally use the following tactics to gain a confession:

  • lie about evidence, accomplice statements, or DNA results
  • isolate the suspect for a short period of time
  • appeal to the suspect's religion or beliefs
  • show the suspect a picture of the dead victim's body
  • impersonate a fellow inmate
  • fake another person's arrest
  • play good cop-bad cop, or
  • strongly encourage that a confession is in the suspect's or another's best interest.

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.

Common Police Interrogation Methods

Police interview methods run the gamut from coaxing to outright lying and other psychological techniques.

Lying and Leading Questions

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.

Informal Questioning

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.

The Reid Technique: Playing Good Cop-Bad Cop

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.

What to Do If You're Being Interrogated by Police

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.

  • Ask if you are free to leave. It doesn't matter if you're at a police station, at home, or on the street. If the police haven't taken you into "custody" (in the legal sense), you are generally free to leave without answering questions. If officers say you're free to leave, it's best to go.
  • Tell the officer you are invoking your right to remain silent. The best way to avoid inadvertently saying something incriminating is not to say anything at all.
  • Tell the officer that you want to speak to a lawyer before answering any questions.
  • Don't assume officers are telling the truth. Remember that lying and playing "good cop-bad cop" are all part of their interrogation techniques.
  • Don't assume that the lack of a Miranda warning means your statements can't be used against you. Often, it's the exact opposite that's true.

State Laws on Police Interrogation Tactics

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.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

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.

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