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Suggestibility in Police Interviews

A serious problem in Britain’s history and in Colonial America was the practice of using torture or other coercion to force people to confess to crimes. The Fifth Amendment in the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights addresses this through the right against self-incrimination: “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself [or herself.]”

In determining whether a confession is “compelled” or involuntary, courts consider the “totality of the circumstances,” including: The suspect’s age, gender, intelligence, education, disability, or unusual susceptibility to coercion; the suspect’s familiarity with the criminal justice system; whether the suspect was given the Miranda warning; the circumstances of the interrogation, including how long it lasted, whether the suspect was given food and drink, and whether the suspect was allowed to take breaks or sleep when needed; and whether the interviewers used verbal or physical intimidation with the victim, including handcuffing or yelling at the suspect.

Even if a confession is legally voluntary and admissible at trial, it may not be reliable. These “false confessions” generally come in three varieties:

  1. Voluntary False Confessions: Without any external pressure, a person comes forward and claims to have committed a crime which the person did not, in fact, commit. Some reasons a person might do this are that the person knows who the real perpetrator is and is trying to protect that perpetrator; the person sees confessing to a notorious crime as a quick way to fame, believing the facts will later prove the person’s innocence; or the person has a mental disorder.

  2. Coerced-Compliant False Confessions: During police interrogation, the person submits to pressure and, while knowing of his or her innocence, admits to committing the crime. For example, the person is being physically or mentally abused and is desperate to make it stop; or the person has been brought to believe that confessing is in his or her best interests because the evidence strongly points to his or her guilt, and confessing is the only way to avoid a harsh sentence; or the person has been promised an immediate reward and believes there is little risk of accepting because the facts will prove his or her innocence.

  3. Coerced-Internalized False Confessions: The person, due to a mental disorder or substance-induced blackout, has no memory of the event but comes to believe that he or she must have committed the crime. For example, the person may be given factual information about the crime during police interviews and begin to create false memories of committing the crime.

False confessions can create serious problems in the criminal justice system. Police officers waste precious time and resources investigating the wrong suspect. Also, if the innocent person is convicted, the real perpetrator avoids justice and is free to commit additional crimes, while the innocent person may spend years in prison before being exonerated—or may never be exonerated. When an exoneration occurs, it can lead to a loss of confidence in the criminal justice system, especially if some of the tactics used to obtain the confession border on the coercive.

Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the administration of justice, ensuring that the innocent are protected while the guilty are held accountable. Peace officers can be aware of the possibility of false confessions and take appropriate precautions, adjusting their interviewing techniques to obtain the maximum amount of reliable information from suspects while avoiding tactics that have an increased risk of producing false confessions.

Interested in learning more?

PLS offers police online self-study legal training on a wide variety of practical issues to help police officers make good decisions in challenging situations.

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