Police deception is a tricky topic to discuss. Some crimes are intrinsically more serious than others and thus have different methods for obtaining retribution. For instance, if a confession elicited from an intentional misrepresentation of evidence is the only way an investigator sees a perpetrator being charged with a crime (like rape, murder, or trafficking), it is difficult to argue against the effectiveness of such a tactic. This stream of logic — in addition to the incorrect idea that people who are not guilty of a crime will not confess to it under any circumstances — has resulted in a legal gray area, where those subject to the law are held to higher standards than those doing the enforcing.
Let’s begin by acknowledging the fact that the police are legally allowed to lie to suspects, provided the lie is not too ridiculous. It became official in 1969 when the Supreme Court ruled that an officer’s misrepresentation of evidence to secure a confession was “while relevant, insufficient…to make [an] otherwise voluntary confession admissible.” This decision from Frazier v. Cupp is a famous one, and its problematic wording has been used to justify police deception in cases since. However, there are certain parameters provided by the court. An investigator, for example, cannot pretend to be a suspect’s lawyer or priest in order to elicit a substantial confession. Such levels of deception would “shock the conscience of the court or community” and be grounds for dropping whatever relevant evidence. The intentional manipulation of evidence as a form of deception, however, was left out of the definition, but was later addressed in Florida v. Cayward.
What is the extent to which we allow the truth to be stretched in the name of public safety?
Investigators cannot directly falsify evidence to elicit a confession, but can lie about the evidence they do have. In 1989 Florida, a man confessed to a crime after the police fabricated a crime lab report “finding” his DNA on the victim. The confession was later suppressed at trial because it was believed investigators went too far by manufacturing evidence. However, it was implied that if investigators had merely told the suspect that such a lab report existed, and used this lie to obtain a confession, then no harm would have been done as this would have been within the acceptable boundaries of a police deception. To reiterate: making up evidence is wrong, lying about made-up evidence is not.
Put more broadly, an officer can only lie about things relevant to the investigation and not about things relating to laws or the judicial system. Telling a suspect that his or her crime has recently been downgraded from felony to misdemeanor (when it has not), for instance, or that he or she will receive a reduced sentence for expressing remorse, would constitute “inherent coercion” and be reason enough to have a confession suppressed.
What about the other side of this privilege? In California, providing false information to a peace officer can be considered obstruction and result in a fine not exceeding $1000 or up to a year in jail, or both if you really piss them off. But if you wear a special uniform and carry a gun, and do it to civilians in the name of the government, it is considered police work? There are anti-perjury laws to prevent officers from lying in court and on official reports, of course, but these are only useful to those who can prove they have been wronged. What is the extent to which we allow the truth to be stretched in the name of public safety?
Even a cursory search on the Internet brings up several programs designed to teach police officers to lie within the limits of the law. Most of them explain deception as a necessary tool in securing confessions, but none seem to be concerned that many innocent people have been convicted for crimes they did not commit, but confessed to under duress. The Reid style of interrogation, a common interview technique which relies on fear and intimidation to get results, has been known to be extremely successful in eliciting confessions, but makes no attempt to separate the innocent from the guilty.
Put simply: do not talk to the police. Even a simple conversation can be later used against you, while silence can never be considered an admission of guilt.
Put in the position, which would you choose: a trial presented to a jury of your “peers” relying on testimony and evidence provided by esteemed agents of the Law, or a plea bargain guaranteeing you a lesser sentence if you confess? To make things worse, you cannot prove you did not commit the crime and they might be able to prove that you did. This is a situation many have found themselves in and one which can often be avoided.
Put simply: do not talk to the police. Even a simple conversation can be later used against you, while silence can never be considered an admission of guilt. Do not lie to the police if questioned, as that is its own mess. Instead, you have the right to remain silent and you should declare you are using it. Film the interaction as much as possible for proof of the actions of both you and the officer. If you have been detained, request your lawyer immediately. Lawyers exist to protect their clients’ rights and can shut down any Reid-style trap you may be falling into. If you know how you can (and will) be treated by officers, and how to act when you are, you have much better chances of walking away clean.
Michael Lyons says “shut up” for your own good.