Police are sometimes so eager to get a confession that they cross the line and coerce a confession out of a suspect. In that situation, we can say, legally speaking, that your confession was involuntary. A judge should prohibit any involuntary confession from being admitted in a criminal trial against you.
This is a blurry issue. Police can use many tactics that put pressure on suspects, and not all of them are illegal. At Tad Nelson & Associates, we can attend any interrogation and make sure the police follow the law. If you’ve already been interrogated, please share details with your Houston criminal defense attorney. We can review whether it was impermissibly coercive. We might successfully ask a judge to suppress an involuntary confession and keep out of court any evidence found as a result of your coerced statements.
Why Courts Keep Out Involuntary Confessions
An involuntary statement has no place in a criminal trial for a few reasons:
- A compelled confession is less reliable. The state can only use reliable evidence to convict you, so it is a due process violation to let it into court.
- Even if the confession is true, courts shouldn’t encourage the police to use physical aggression, duress, or threats to get a confession. Letting a compelled confession into court would give police an incentive to use these tactics again.
- A suspect who is being beaten has an incentive to lie, so the statement could be outright false.
- For these reasons, judges will keep out a statement if it was improperly coerced out of a defendant.
Similarly, the court will suppress any evidence that is directly obtained because of a compelled confession. For example, a suspect might confess to killing someone and tell the police where the knife is. The police find it buried in the backyard and pull fingerprint evidence from the handle. Because the confession was involuntary, however, the police can’t introduce the knife evidence.
When is a Confession Involuntary?
Police get a lot of leeway in how they perform an interrogation. However, there are some actions that make any confession compelled. One example is physical coercion, such as slapping or hitting a suspect, or threatening to physically harm them. Any type of physical aggression will probably be enough to make an ensuing confession involuntary.
Other than physical abuse, however, there are few bright-line rules. That doesn’t mean “anything goes.” Instead, judges look at the totality of the circumstances, such as the characteristics of the defendant and the interrogation. If in the judges’ mind all the facts cast doubt that the defendant gave a confession freely, then the judge will keep it out of court.
Here are some factors a judge considers:
- The suspect’s intelligence, mental infirmity, or mental illness. Someone with a mental illness or with a low IQ is more easily coerced.
- Whether the police deny the suspect food and water. These factors can put pressure on a suspect to lie.
- The duration of the interrogation. The longer the interrogation, the more likely it is coercive.
- Whether the suspect is kept up all night and not allowed to sleep. Denial of sleep is a coercive technique.
- Whether the police make threats or promises. These can also unduly influence a suspect.
- Any language barrier, including the lack of a translator in the suspect’s native language. With language barriers, a suspect is more likely to be unduly influenced.
- The suspect’s age and whether a parent was present. A minor is more easily coerced than an adult.
What Police Can Get Away With
Believe it or not, the police can lie to you, and that is rarely enough to make a confession involuntary. Judges tend to view lying as one of the “tricks” police can use to get someone to confess, so police have broad discretion to make things up in the interrogation room. For example, police can lie and claim that a witness implicated you in the crime, even when that’s not true.
Police can also get away with underhanded tactics like denying you a bathroom break. What matters is whether the totality of the circumstances make the confession involuntary.
Did You Ask for a Lawyer?
If you did, then the police must stop their interrogation until a lawyer is provided to you. If they keep asking questions, we can ask a judge to suppress any subsequent statements so long as you didn’t re-engage the police in a discussion of the crime.
This is a powerful reason to quickly contact an attorney after arrest. If your child was arrested, you should also call a lawyer and identify the precinct where your child is being held. A lawyer’s presence is the safest way to keep out incriminating statements, including confessions.
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