In HBO’s The Wire, Detective Moreland sets up an elaborate scheme to coax a confession out of a young suspect.  The detective tells the young suspect that the office copy machine is in fact a polygraph machine and tapes his hand to it.  Having previously loaded the copy machine with three pages that have the words “true, true, and false” on them, respectively, the detective begins to interrogate the suspect and even goes so far as to refer to another detective, who is operating the copy machine, as “professor.”  Detective Moreland gives the suspect two easy questions to begin so that the two ‘”true” pages will reinforce the validity of the test in the suspect’s mind.  On his third question, Detective Moreland asks the suspect if he in fact killed the victim of the alleged murder.  The suspect responds that he did not.  However, when the copy machine prints out the page reading “false,” the suspect believes that he has been caught and confesses to the murder.  The scene ends with the sound of handcuffs and Detective Moreland saying, “the bigger the lie, the more they believe.”

For a confession to be valid and admissible in court, it must be voluntary.  Thankfully, the Supreme Court has held that a confession obtained through the use of torture is constitutionally invalid. The courts now consider the totality of all the surrounding circumstances to determine whether a confession is voluntary.  Police deception is merely one factor that the courts consider within the totality of the circumstances.  The police officers’ conduct must be such that the defendant’s will is overborne or his capacity for self-determination is critically impaired.  The question becomes, where have the courts drawn the line between mere trickery or deception and actual coercion forcing involuntariness?  This line is not one that the courts have drawn clearly.

The courts have generally drawn a distinction between deceptions intrinsic to the investigation, meaning those more closely related to the case at hand such as lies about accomplice confessions or embellishments of the evidence against the defendant, and extrinsic deceptions, meaning those based on factors outside the facts of the case such as improper promises or threats to the defendant.  The courts have generally held that intrinsic deceptions are less likely to result in an involuntary confession.  Extrinsic deceptions on the other hand are more likely to support a finding that the confession was involuntary, leading to suppression of the confession.

Intrinsic deception

The most common example of intrinsic deception is embellishing the evidence of the state.  Simply making false assertions about the evidence against the defendant is insufficient to show that the defendant’s confession was involuntary.  For example, in a case where the police officer that questioned the defendant falsely told him that his alleged accomplice had been brought in and had confessed, the Court did not consider this false assertion of the evidence against the defendant sufficient to make his otherwise voluntary confession inadmissible.  The courts have also generally refused to find a defendant’s confession involuntary when the officers lie about test results, which might carry more weight than simply telling the defendant that they have certain evidence.  This is even true when the police tell the defendant that he has failed a polygraph test, whether or not a real test was performed.

Extrinsic Deception

The Supreme Court has held that extrinsic deceptions are to be strongly considered in the totality of the circumstances.  In Lynum v. Illinois, the Court invalidated the defendant’s confession after the defendant was falsely threatened that her children would be taken away from her and she would lose her government benefits for them if she did not cooperate. Citing that these threats were made while the defendant was surrounded by police officers, the court held that the defendant “had no reason not to believe that the police had ample power to carry out their threats.”

So can the Police Lie to Me?

Generally speaking, yes they can!  After they lie to you, anything you say can be used against you in court to find you guilty!  You should always consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney before speaking with the police.  Police officers have the ability to lie or make up test results and can still use your confession against you afterwards.  Make sure you contact the Criminal Defense Team at Hatch, Little & Bunn before you say something that can come back to haunt you for the rest of your life.


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