Police Deception in Interrogations
Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?
Everyday across our state someone is arrested or charged with a crime. Shortly after arrest, the police typically read the suspect his or her Miranda rights. Most people have at least some familiarity of the Miranda rights (i.e. the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, etc.) Seemingly, the Miranda rights provide a person with all the protection he or she would need to intelligently decide whether to respond to police questioning. However, what happens if the police tell lies to the suspect in an attempt to uncover the truth? What happens if the police use deception or exaggerate the evidence against the suspect? Can the police really employ these types of deceptive practices during an interrogation? The short answer is yes, the use of police deception during custodial interrogations is perfectly legal.
Recently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided State v. Lemoine, which provides an overview of the amount of latitude that the police have when questioning a suspect. The facts of the case are grim. Mr. Lemoine, who was 22 years old, molested his friend’s five year old daughter in the back yard of her home. After the assault, the young girl told her mother what happened. Unsurprisingly, the mom contacted the police and the investigation immediately focused upon Mr. Lemoine. A short time after the assault, a police officer called Mr. Lemoine and “invited” him down to the police station so he could make a statement and “explain his side of the story.” Mr. Lemoine went to the police station and initially denied any knowledge of the assault. He accused the girl of lying.
The police did not believe Mr. Lemoine. The officers wanted Mr. Lemoine to confess to his crime so they engaged in several ploys designed to entice him to confess. First, the detective promised not to put Mr. Lemoine in jail in exchange for the “true story.” Second, the detective stated that if Mr. Lemoine told “the truth” that the detective would keep the case out of the newspapers and the “public forum.” Third, the detective implied that if Mr. Lemoine did not tell the truth he would be unable to make any calls while he was in jail, strongly implying a restriction on Mr. Lemoine contacting an attorney. Fourth, the detective exaggerated the evidence the police had against Mr. Lemoine and suggested that they had scientific evidence that demonstrated his guilt. Finally, the detective failed to advise Mr. Lemoine of his Miranda rights.
Shortly after the use of these deceptive and coercive measures Mr. Lemoine confessed. He was officially charged with sexual assault a short time later and demanded a trial. Prior to trial, Mr. Lemoine asked the judge to rule that the government could not use his confession against him because his statements were involuntary, coerced by the police deception, and thus inadmissible. The judge denied the motion and Mr. Lemoine was convicted. On appeal, Mr. Lemoine renewed his argument that his statements were involuntarily because of the police deception. The Wisconsin Supreme Court overwhelming rejected his argument (only Chief Justice Abrahamson dissented and agreed that Mr. Lemoine’s statement was involuntary).
The legal nuances of Mr. Lemoine’s case are not the focus here. In fact, the opinion does not break any new legal ground. As Justice Crooks wrote, “using deception in an interrogation is common and generally accepted.” Rather, I think the opinion highlights two broader points that have more practical significance. First, the police have wide latitude when interrogating a suspect and can use deception in order to obtain a confession. For example, the police can lie to a suspect and claim to have a lot of evidence against that person when in fact they have almost none at all similar to Mr. Lemoine’s case. Similarly, the police often will suggest that a witness or an accomplice already made incriminating statements against the suspect hoping that the suspect will want to share “his side of the story.” The use of this type of deception is powerful and will likely convince a suspect that all hope is lost and he or she would be better off by confessing.
Second, Mr. Lemoine’s case demonstrates the importance of asserting the right to consult with an attorney prior to speaking with the police. Similar to Mr. Lemoine, most people are simply ill prepared to handle a police interrogation. The situation is naturally coercive. The suspect will be isolated in an “interview room” and perhaps handcuffed. The officer asking the hard questions will very likely be a trained and professional interrogator. Most people are simply unaware of the legal nuances surrounding the Miranda rights and what the police can and cannot do during an interrogation. For these reasons alone, invoking the right to an attorney when confronted with police interrogation is always a smart move. The failure to do so could have drastic consequences for the suspect as this case illustrates. A confession is the strongest piece of evidence in a criminal trial and virtually ensures that the suspect will be convicted of a crime.
Finally, an important point to remember is that while the police can lawfully use deception during an interview the opposite is not true In fact, if a suspect lies to the police during the interrogation he or she could be charged with a crime for obstructing a police investigation. Thus, if you find yourself at the center of a police investigation it is important to consult with an attorney before speaking with the police.